The Watsonville City Council will stop allowing virtual comments during its public meetings for the rest of the year after it received two anonymous calls filled with racist language and expletives during the Oct. 24 meeting.
Both were from anonymous callers, one insulting Jewish people and the other one falsely connecting young black men to crime.
Two days later, the Capitola City Council received a similar series of calls that continued throughout the meeting, prompting the city to end Zoom participation for the foreseeable future. The calls also forced the council to move three items from the agenda to a future meeting, said Vice Mayor Kristen Brown.
“We felt that it was not in the best interest of the community to continue hearing those kinds of statements,” she said.
In all instances, the calls were disconnected by city staff.
Such incidents are increasing locally and nationwide. The Sacramento City Council in September ended its virtual public comment after similar incidents earlier this year, and the Morgan Hill City Council on Oct. 4 was assailed by anti-LGBTQ and racist comments.
But ending virtual comments has put elected and civic leaders in the position of balancing First Amendment rights with maintaining decorum and protecting the public from hateful language.
Capitola City Manager Jaime Goldstein said that there are certain bounds for communicating in a forum such as a public meeting.
“City council meetings are not necessarily a pure free speech venue,” he said. “They are about city business.”
Comments falling outside that, Goldstein said, do not necessarily have to be allowed.
“You could argue that (talk of) murdering certain ethnic groups is outside the subject matter of the city,” he said.
Watsonville City Manager Rene Mendez said the issue will return for an in-depth discussion in January or February.
It is not clear how the protocol for virtual comments will change in Watsonville, but one possibility is moving the public comment period to the end of the meeting, when those wishing to make hateful comments are less likely to wait, Mendez said.
He added that there is no legal requirement to offer virtual public comments. When they are allowed, the city will default to the idea that people have the right to express their opinion, Mendez said.
Still, the city needs tools to protect the community from hate speech, he said.
“We are here to obviously listen and hear people, but it has to be done with decorum and it should not be offensive and it shouldn’t be hate speech, none of that,” he said. “I don’t think there is any place for that in expressing yourself to your government, in particular when it offends and it is really hurtful to a lot of people.”
After the Capitola City Council briefly recessed following the comments, Mayor Margaux Keiser said such speech will not be tolerated.
“We here in Capitola are made up of a wide array of people,” she said. “All walks of life–male, female, queer, black, white, hispanic. Some of these comments that have been said here tonight are not indicative of our beliefs here in Capitola.
“I will also extend my sincere apologies for anyone that was offended this evening,” Keiser said. “I know I was, and I personally won’t stand for it.”
Watsonville City Councilwoman Kristal Salcido said she wants to see specific language for how the council will allow virtual comments.
“…So what happened earlier can never happen again,” she said. “We should not be used as a platform for hate speech. I know we all condemn it. I think we can do better and we will.”