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La Mesa, Calif., Suspends Virtual Comments After Zoom Bombs

La Mesa, which is near San Diego, has temporarily suspended public comments via Zoom following a rash of antisemitic hate speech during last month's City Council meeting.

(TNS) — La Mesa has temporarily suspended public comments via Zoom following a rash of antisemitic hate speech during last month's City Council meeting.

During a meeting on Feb. 13, many listened as caller after caller spouted vulgar rhetoric during the public comments section.

Some people sitting in the audience gasped. City Councilmember Colin Parent stood up and walked out.

"I got up in a huff and left the room, both in anger, but also because I wanted to make sure that people knew that at least I didn't think that the comments we were hearing were appropriate or welcome," Parent said.

Following the meeting, Parent said he spoke with City Attorney Glenn Sabine and City Manager Greg Humora about how the council could respond.

Staff returned during the council's Feb. 27 with an update to the public comment policy, which included suspending comments via Zoom. Those unable to attend meetings in-person may continue submitting eComments of up to 500 words online and the public can continue to watch the meetings virtually both on the city's website and over Zoom.

In her presentation, City Clerk Megan Wiegelman said the city allowed public comments via Zoom as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but since being implemented, there had been some technological issues that caused disruptions to meetings. Neither the presentation nor the agenda item mentioned the Zoombombing incident.

With City Council meetings returning to in-person formats, Wiegelman said remote public comments are no longer necessary. In an interview last week, Vice Mayor Laura Lauthian said she supports rescinding all pandemic-era policies.

"I don't think we should have a system where people are calling in anonymously," Lothian said. "We're giving people an opportunity to hijack city council meetings."

Parent said during the meeting that while the suspension should be initiated, he wasn't in support of a permanent end to virtual comments. He amended the agenda item to include reinstating a subcommittee to address ways to bring back remote comments with updates to improve accountability on the platform.

The council approved the suspension of public comments over Zoom 4-1, with Councilmember Jack Shu casting the opposing vote.

"I think it's become a normal, accepted means to participate in public meetings so that people can give both general and comments on agendized items," Shu said.

While Lothian said she would vote to approve a future agenda item that would add measures such as requiring full names and cameras being on for remote participants, she also said those wishing to participate in public meetings should take time to be there in person.

"City staff makes an effort to be there, city management, city council, the people that get there in public. Things that are important take work," Lothian said.

During the Feb. 27 meeting, several members of the public spoke in favor of keeping virtual comments.

While denouncing the hate speech from the prior meeting, they also touted the benefits of virtual participation, like providing access for caregivers of children and elders, people with disabilities and those unable to drive. One La Mesa resident spoke while in New Mexico, one person said his two children were sick and another participated virtually because he was sick.

"It's through COVID that the city has discovered how to engage more residents in our city governance, but we have to figure out how to best regulate it without throwing the baby out with the bathwater," said Janet Castaños, a member of the city's Community Police Oversight Board.

Castaños added that the city should put more energy into an alternative solution, and suggested a process where meeting participants would state their first and last name, city of residence and topic before sharing their comments.

As Zoom increasingly became the go-to platform for meetings nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities have grappled with disruptive speech during public comments.

In San Diego County, Zoombombs have been observed during meetings of the San Diego City Council, county Board of Supervisors and during the soft launch of distance learning at San Diego Unified in April 2020.

The Anti-Defamation League — an organization that advocates against hate speech and extremism — reports that antisemitic hate speech has been on the rise in recent years. Fabienne Perlov, Anti-Defamation League regional director for the San Diego office, said the number of antisemitic incidents in San Diego County alone increased from 36 cases in 2022 to 102 cases in 2023, or a 183 percent increase.

Several ways to prevent Zoombombing — such as being careful with whom meeting information is shared or requiring a password and enabling a waiting room — don't work for City Council meetings that are meant to be open to the public.

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