Midpeninsula Post

Palo Alto council drops proposed law that would’ve made hate speech a misdemeanor

Palo Alto city hall in June 2021. (Arya Nasikkar)

Rather than pursuing a law cracking down on hate crimes, the Palo Alto City Council voted to increase community education and outreach during its Monday council meeting on May 9. The council also opted to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to deal with hate crimes in Palo Alto — a decision proposed and supported by Palo Alto’s Human Rights Committee. 

Council members unanimously agreed that increased community awareness and education would benefit the city more than a punitive legal measure, leading the council to drop a law proposed by Councilmember Greg Tanaka that would make hate speech a misdemeanor.

At a policy and services meeting last September, Tanaka proposed the local law that would make hate speech a misdemeanor, evoking the discussion on how to deal with hate incidents. The increased crackdown on hate crimes was motivated by several high-profile hate incidents, most notably a conflict in Fuki Sushi where a customer shouted insults and racial slurs at a restaurant staff member. 

Other recent incidents included the dissemination of antisemitic flyers in February and the threatening of a senior pastor last August — an action suspected to be tied to her public support of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Tanaka argued in September that a more robust response to hate incidents was necessary to combat the “underreported issue.”

“It sounds like maybe people are okay going to website reporting but not necessarily making a police report about it,” Tanaka said in a September policy and services committee meeting. “Even if the action is small, like a $100 fine, something where it says this kind of action, this kind of behavior is not right and not acceptable in our city.”

The law received opposition from residents and council members alike, however. Resident Aram James said the law “flies in the face of the constitution,” as it could violate the First Amendment. As hate speech is currently protected under the Constitution, a misdemeanor law on hate speech could present a legal conflict for the council.

Tanaka ultimately supported the motion to drop the proposed law after talking with Palo Alto staff and various residents during appointments. However, he said that he still wished for more direct ways to combat hate in Palo Alto.

The council also voted to support Assembly Bill 1947, a bill currently being circulated in the House of Representatives. The bill would require all local law enforcement agencies to adopt hate crimes policies and formally report hate crimes to the Department of Justice. 

“The police department’s goal is to prevent any obstacles that would prohibit anyone from reporting hate incidents or hate crimes,” Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder said. “Anything we can do to partner with the H.R.C. [Human Rights Committee] or other options we’d be interested in hearing.”

What the Federal Bureau of Investigation can offer is still to be determined. A few months ago, two Human Rights Committee commissioners went to a briefing by the bureau about a community education program that could apply to Palo Alto. The city staff is still working with a representative of Representative Anna Eshoo to arrange a meeting.

While the city council voted unanimously to request bureau assistance, some residents opposed it, including James and resident Rebecca Eisenberg.

“We should not trust the people that caused the problem to fix the problem; that is not a rational strategy,” Eisenberg said. “Like Aram [James], I believe bringing in any crime-fighting force will probably not be as effective as bringing in a community organization like the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union].”

Councilmember Greer Stone conceded that the bureau has had a “troubling and at times racist” past with hate crimes, however, he and other councilmembers said they felt the bureau could offer valuable educational resources. Stone said the possible addition of a bureau’s strategic unit could also spark interest in the issue among residents.  

The council will be working with San Francisco’s F.B.I. field office using its new strategy to conduct community outreach to spread awareness, build trust and encourage additional reporting of hate crimes and incidents. The strategy also entails working with local law enforcement.

Other community members also supported an increase in community outreach regarding hate crimes; Resident Kat Snyder suggested increasing community outreach through the public library system, and resident Bob Moss advocated for increased police activity and cooperation with neighborhood associations.

“We have a problem and we shouldn’t ignore it,” Moss said. “We should accentuate the problems and their solution. One of the solutions, obviously, is to get the police more involved. … I think it’d be a good idea for people from city hall, whether it be council members or city staff, to go around in the community and work with neighborhood associations and organizations like churches, synagogues and so on.”

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