Walnut Creek Councilmember Kevin Wilk during a Walnut Creek City Council meeting in June. (Screenshot)
Walnut Creek Councilmember Kevin Wilk during a Walnut Creek City Council meeting in June. (Screenshot)

How antisemites are using a Covid accommodation to disrupt local government meetings

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Widespread acceptance of video conferencing was one of the few silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In my position on the Walnut Creek City Council, I saw how services like Zoom allowed for remote access to public meetings, increased engagement and encouraged participation in civic life even during lockdown.

When in-person public meetings shut down per state and county health orders in March 2020, city councils and other public bodies began using video conferencing to continue government meetings. This allowed the public to offer comments and introduced the convenience of participating from home.

As in-person public meetings began to resume, state law was changed to allow remote participation to continue indefinitely. Many if not most local governments found that their community members appreciated the ability to comment remotely without giving up an evening.

Sadly, as in other areas of modern society, advances in communications technology can enable the worst among us. Bad actors are leading local governments to make tough choices to guard against hate speech from infiltrating public life. Some municipalities have even found the best protection is returning to the previous way of doing things, not offering remote participation at all.

At two recent Walnut Creek City Council meetings, people joined by Zoom to share antisemitic messages that surprised all of us on the council. The commenters were anonymous and left their video cameras off. It was obviously a coordinated effort.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript of the June 6 meeting:

Speaker 1: Every time whites express love for their people, some Jew wants to shut it down. 

Speaker 2: You’ve got a bunch of Jewish supremacists that are shutting down people who don’t agree with them. It’s OK to be pro-white.

Speaker 3: I agree with [Speaker 2] on that. The first amendment has no exception for hate speech … You could be sued for that.

Speaker 4: I had a statement prepared, but I just realized that your Jewish council member would shut it down. 

We were able to determine that none of the speakers was from Walnut Creek. In fact, they weren’t even from Contra Costa County, and at least one was from out of state. These are not people who would typically bother to come in person to a city council meeting out of their area. Nevertheless, their conduct had local consequences.

The day after that first call-in, antisemitic banners appeared above Highway 24 in nearby Lafayette. People on the hate-filled, extremist social media site Gab were exuberant, posting about our city council meeting and the banners. Dozens of commenters applauded their efforts. As it turned out, some of the same people had called into a recent Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting and spewed antisemitism.

At the next Walnut Creek City Council meeting on June 20, again anonymous people used remote access to spread antisemitic messages.

Last year, I wrote in J. about the rise in antisemitism and practical steps that local elected officials can take to fight it.

And now we’re dealing with antisemitism targeting elected officials and the Jewish community during public meetings throughout the state.

Easy remote access has allowed individuals to use public meetings as a megaphone to amplify their hate and recruit for their cause, which they do through social media following an attack. They are attempting to numb people to their hate speech and normalize antisemitism as just a “difference of opinion,” hoping, insidiously, that hate speech and hate crimes will grow exponentially.

State law is clear that almost any speech, unless it’s vulgar or threatening, must be allowed.

But should hate speech, the very nature of which is disturbing and potentially threatening — and has nothing to do with city business — be permitted? City attorneys are currently debating what the First Amendment requires of us in these situations and how much latitude there is at public meetings.

While the attorneys defend their cities against potential lawsuits, city officials are looking for parameters to prevent hate speech, especially from remote callers. It’s not possible to require speakers to turn on their camera, and it’s not feasible to ask for identification prior to speaking. Some cities have opted to provide a first warning, and then cut a speaker off.

Others are making the tough choice to end Zoom participation and go back to a pre-pandemic way of conducting city business, simply streaming meetings online without the ability to chime in remotely.

It will be unfortunate to lose these valuable communication opportunities, but freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. We should not provide a platform for antisemites or anyone whose goal is to amplify a message of hate.

Kevin Wilk
Kevin Wilk

Kevin Wilk is a member of the Walnut Creek City Council. He was elected in 2016 and served as mayor in 2021.