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Four El Cerriot City council members hold up signed reading: El Cerrito Stands United Against Hate while at the long wooden council semi-circle table that faces the audience. The city's ceal of mountains and sea is on the wall behind them.

Did El Cerrito council go too far in protecting community against hate speech?

on October 13, 2023

Residents are no longer allowed to comment on Zoom during El Cerrito City Council meetings, after an ugly incident last month in which a group spewing hate speech took over the public comment session. 

El Cerrito Mayor Pro Tem Tessa Rudnick, who is Jewish, described the hateful rhetoric that erupted during the session in an opinion piece in The Jewish News of Northern California, noting that it included a depiction of pedophilia and remarks denying the Holocaust. She said a Boy Scout troop was present at the meeting that night, earning merit badges, and was forced to witness the diatribe. 

“We then felt compelled to make the heartbreaking decision to end public comments via Zoom. It was once a silver lining of the pandemic for those who could not … appear in person — and now these white supremacists ruined it for our community,” she wrote.

Although the public will still be able to watch meetings on Zoom, the council will only take public comments in person, or address responses sent before the meeting commences. 

Many other governmental meetings across the country have been targeted by racist and antisemitic commenters in what has been called a coordinated attack by hate groups online. After facing a similar incident, Walnut Creek City Council also ended online public comments. In October, Richmond, Hermosa Beach, Modesto and Ceres city councils also faced groups making racist and antisemitic remarks over Zoom. In a precursor to the Sept. 19 City Council meeting, a group also hit an El Cerrito advisory board meeting that day. 

“I just want to underline how severe these racist comments are targeting our council, our city, our council members,” El Cerrito Mayor Lisa Motoyama told Richmond Confidential. “I’m really glad that people of El Cerrito are outraged because it is horrible and outrageous.” 

Some residents on social media applauded the decision. “Excellent … Cowards only act big when they are anonymous or have a tremendous advantage,” one Instagram user wrote. 

David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that although the decision to stop online comments is not against the law under the state’s Brown Act, there are dangers in letting a small minority affect the workings of a government body.

 “To cut off remote public comments may have the unintended consequence of disproportionately impacting the very communities that are purportedly being protected,” he said. 

Marc Levine, Anti-Defamation League Central Pacific regional director, said the online attacks are not random.  

“These hate groups believe that there is a large captive audience at these council meetings watching online,” he said. “So they can grow their notoriety and sometimes even fundraise off of their attacks.” 

Tyler Gregory, CEO with the Jewish Community Relations Council, said that while these speakers have been disruptive, his group doesn’t advocate measures that curtail free speech. It is equally important, he noted, to grant access to public meetings to all people, including seniors and those with disabilities who may not be physically able to attend. 

The JCRC and the Bay Area Network of Jewish Officials in consultation with the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund have put together a guide of best practices for confronting hate speech. It has been shared with over 400 Bay Area city council members. 

It includes the option to end online comments and to physically turn one’s back to speakers to show opposition. Both were adopted by El Cerrito Council at the Sept. 19 meeting.

While the mayor and City Council could not stop the public comment session due to the Brown Act, which regulates how government bodies run public meetings, the members opted to cut in half the time allotted to speakers during the verbal attacks. Council members came prepared because of what happend at the advisory board meeting, and held up signs at the dais reading: “EL CERRITO STANDS UNITED AGAINST HATE” as an act of protest.  

Motoyama said the council doesn’t want to stifle comments, but added, “We also cannot expose our community to this kind of disgusting hate speech. It is a very fine line.” 

(Top photo courtesy of Tessa Rudnick)

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