The Excerable ‘Zoombombers’ Upending Public Meetings in California

Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Modesto, Fremont. These are just some of the local governments recently forced to ban remote comments at their public meetings because of hate speech from racist and antisemitic trolls.

The so-called “zoombombing” campaign — which has also affected school boards — has gotten so out of hand that some stakeholders are discussing possible changes to the Brown Act.

Free speech advocates fret that governments’ response to the barrage of hate could serve to limit public discourse and engagement. For certain members of the public, such as those with disabilities, virtual meetings have been a godsend.

“It’s really a shame when some people’s speech or behavior cuts (access) off for so many other people,” Kathi Pugh, with Berkeley’s Commission on Disability, told the Mercury News.  

But zoombombing has become more than just a nuisance. Racist and antisemitic tirades have made it impossible for some councils to do their work. In the case of school board meetings, some parents are rethinking their children’s involvement.

“I’ve had [school board meetings] on in the kitchen when I’m cooking,” Santa Rosa City Schools parent April Liggett told the Press Democrat last month. “I would never think I needed to wear headphones. I’m naive in that way.”  

The campaign is clearly coordinated and can be viewed as part of a larger increase in organized hate across the U.S. The tactics are vile. The trolls hurl profanities and racial slurs, including the N-word, at both officials and attendees. They deny the Holocaust, defend slavery, and spew antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

Other states are dealing with the same problem. Zoombombers have gone on the attack in Connecticut and Georgia.  

Public officials are trying to figure out how to best navigate this disturbing phenomenon. For now, many feel the right course of action is to cut zoombombing off at the source.

Online platforms like Zoom “are great tools of communication that we didn’t have 20 years ago. But unfortunately, we also have a segment of the population that will use that for hateful or nefarious means,” said Walnut Creek Councilmember Kevin Will, who recently met with Cal Cities to brainstorm solutions. “All it takes is a few people to ruin it for everybody.”