Government officials throughout the nation find they must balance free speech and decency

The Tension Between Online Hate Speech and Preserving Free Speech

This editorial is the opinion of Morgan Hill Life

The recent decision by the Morgan Hill City Council to ban remote comments on Zoom was an unfortunate but necessary step. As a community newspaper, Morgan Hill Life strongly believes in protecting free speech rights. However, we cannot stand by while extremists abuse public meetings to spew racist, antisemitic, and homophobic hate speech.

During the Oct. 4 city council meeting, four men used the virtual public comment period to spread vile ideology. This incident follows a disturbing nationwide trend of “Zoom-bombing” by bigots seeking to disrupt civic proceedings. City Manager Christina Turner and City Attorney Don Larkin made the decision to end virtual public comment. The hateful rhetoric puts vulnerable groups at risk and creates a hostile work environment antithetical to meaningful public discourse.

While we regret residents can no longer call in comments remotely, the city must balance free speech with safety. As long as extremists weaponize public meetings, remote comments cannot continue.

Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. But the First Amendment does not protect harassment, threats, or incitement against marginalized communities. As Morgan Hill residents, we must condemn hate while supporting the rights of all residents to engage safely in civic life. If we work together, we can maintain an open forum for debate without compromising on compassion.

In addition to Morgan Hill, local government officials across California and throughout the nation are finding they must balance free speech and decency. A disturbing trend is emerging of extremists hijacking public meetings to spew hate speech and conspiracy theories. Recently at a Tiburon Town Council meeting, online commenters denied the Holocaust and used racist slurs when discussing climate policy.

While we strongly defend First Amendment rights, local governments must take steps to curb this virtual venom without compromising public access. The hateful rhetoric creates an intimidating environment that deters respectful debate and civic participation.

The presumption must be that most commenters sincerely aim to contribute relevant, thoughtful remarks. Their right to address elected leaders should be protected. Any restrictions should narrowly target those who weaponize meetings to attack marginalized groups or spread dangerous misinformation.

It is mind-boggling that some choose to spend time disrupting low-profile local meetings with hate speech. They likely wouldn’t exhibit such brazen bigotry if not hidden behind a screen. While they have free speech rights, that does not entitle them to a platform.

As outlined in a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League, groups like the antisemitic Goyim Defense League are encouraging followers to flood local government forums with racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. When divisive voices monopolize comment periods spreading hate and lies, they deprive residents of opportunities to address community needs. Their goal is chaos and publicity, not progress.

We must not become so hardened to this cynical strategy that we normalize it as part of the democratic process. If left unchecked, the hijacking of public meetings will continue escalating, further eroding civility and trust in institutions.

Municipalities must take reasonable steps to filter out harassment without compromising transparency. For instance, requiring commenters to provide their real names and addresses could deter the most egregious abuses. Moderators should be empowered to mute or remove speakers who cross lines. Of course, any restrictions must be content-neutral and narrowly applied to those clearly disrupting meetings. Well-meaning people can disagree passionately on policy issues. But extremists now treat public forums as recruitment grounds, not good-faith venues to engage representatives.

This is not a partisan issue. If good people refrain from participation, the extremists win. We must stand united against hate and in support of civic discourse.

An ideal solution should not be banning online comments altogether. Doing so limits public engagement at a time when virtual access enables more people to be involved. We urge the city to explore long-term solutions that preserve public access while filtering out hate speech. Other cities use screening measures to block abusive commenters from meetings. Cities like Mill Valley use these measures to block abusive speakers while allowing constructive input.

Elected officials have a moral and legal obligation to ensure civic proceedings remain focused, substantive and safe. The hijacking of public comments to normalize bigotry and falsehoods corrodes inclusive debate and drives good-faith participants away.

With care, cities can filter out those who abuse public forums while preserving an open exchange of ideas. Protecting democratic participation and inclusive debate should remain the priority. We must not allow the intolerant few to silence the rational majority.