In response to a series of “Zoom bombings” experienced by the Palo Alto City Council, the Palo Alto Unified School District board has temporarily suspended Zoom commenting for the next three meetings.
Board members voted 3-1 to disable Zoom access for public comments, with board members Shana Segal dissenting and Todd Collins absent, at the special meeting on Oct. 20. The board also designated an ad hoc committee to develop protective measures for future instances of hate speech.
The decision comes in light of a series of “Zoom bombings” during the public comment period of the Palo Alto City Council’s Oct. 16 meeting, where several public commenters made racist comments during open forum and the Cubberley agenda item. According to Palo Alto Online, the group in question has been causing disruptions in multiple Bay Area cities — including Redwood City, Union City and Milpitas — all of which have already implemented bans on public commenting.
“We were preparing for [“Zoom bombing”] starting in mid-September,” city councilmember Julie Lycott-Haims said. “But you have to be super careful about First Amendment protections and yet, address the fact that it is horrendous for humans to be subjected to such speech.”
Eleven speakers made antisemitic comments throughout the public comment period, with Mayor Lydia Kou denouncing the speakers’ message of discrimination and hate between the racist comments. City clerks turned down the volume and interjected their speeches for being non-topical. Despite this, Kou stated that the First Amendment of the Constitution requires the council to give everyone an equal chance to express their views.
PAUSD initially introduced remote commenting protocols during virtual meetings and the system was reinstated at the start of the 2022-23 school year. Taking away this option, albeit temporarily, has sparked community debates on democracy and free speech.
“We need to be sensitive to community members who may not be able to appear in person,” Segal said at the meeting. “I’m concerned that eliminating Zoom comments may pose a slippery slope in that it may be perceived as having a chilling effect on the same freedom of speech. … Are we giving the Zoom bombers yet greater power by taking away our community members’ ability to participate in school board meetings remotely?”
While legal boundaries exist for hate speech, distinguishing it from offensive comments can be nuanced. In such cases, public agencies are unable to restrict speech based on its content. The board’s decision is meant to preserve order for board functionality, board member Shaunak Dharap said.
PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin cited the significance of safeguarding young listeners as one of the reasons for the suspension.
“I think there’s a huge difference between us and the city council,” Austin said. “City council may have students and children in attendance, but it’s not their primary audience. Ours is. This is what we do … it’s all student-related.”
While some community members have criticized the lack of consideration for equitable citizen participation, Austin said that stakeholder participation has not experienced a decline. Rather, it has seen an increase with the discussion of the multivariable class at PAUSD high schools.
“Our last two meetings … had the highest attendance rates I’ve seen in my six years here,” Austin said. “So I don’t feel like the ability to participate was squashed.”
Austin noted that while community-proposed solutions — such as a moderated Zoom chat — sound promising, they’re not feasible. Instead, the board has assigned the agenda-setting ad hoc committee, composed of board members Shana Segal and Shounak Dharap, to bring recommendations to the board at the upcoming meetings.
“Virtual comments are not required by the state of California,” Austin said. “But our board has embraced it. And I think they intend to go back to embracing it. You just need to see how things fall out around us a little bit.”
Individuals who wish to comment on board actions can email the school board at email@example.com.