Power of Two: Pair of Public Commenters Cause Confusion and Delay Before Council Passes Civility/Anti-Hate Speech Code for Public Comment


(Note: public speaker’s names are removed because I was uncertain of the exact spelling from the audio and didn’t want to misattribute a quote, especially the anti-Semitic ones.)

Never doubt the power of one speaker, or one written comment, at a Santa Monica City Council meeting to effect change. Even when, or maybe especially when, the issue the Council faces should not be controversial.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the Council was set to pass a non-binding civility statement (Item 5k on the agenda) for public testimony that offered a strong rebuke of hate speech. City Attorney Douglas Sloan noted that because the Council is not saying it would take an action against someone for hate speech at a public meeting, the statement was an exercise of the Council’s First Amendment Rights and not a restriction on anyone else’s.

During the open public comment portion of the meeting which was held before the item was discussed by the Council and city staff; one speaker spoke against the statement while another demonstrated its need with an anti-Semitic tirade that was all too-familiar to long time Council watchers. 

“You can control city employees’ speech at work, but you cannot infringe on the public’s right to free speech at city council and other board and commission meetings,” spoke one speaker, an African-American woman, who claimed the Council had violated her free speech rights over the past decade. She went on to accuse the Council of exercising their power in a dictatorial fashion. There was also one letter in the Council file submitted by a member of the public that discussed the ACLU’s opinion supporting Americans’ right to all free speech, including hate speech.

These concerns were enough for Councilmember Phil Brock to pull to motion from the consent calendar and ponder whether the statement, even if it were non-binding, would be enough to chill free speech. The full debate can be heard from the 2:37 portion of the meeting to 2:53 at the Youtube broadcast of the meeting.

“What I heard from some residents was that even posting that policy might discourage people from coming to City Hall and speak,” Brock stated.

What followed was a fifteen minute effort by Brock and Councilmember Oscar de la Torre to workshop the language so that it would be clear that the Council was disgusted by hate speech but would not infringe on anyone’s right to say what they wanted at official city meetings. At one point, the proposed language was gibberish due to some verb agreement issues; and Mayor Gleam Davis stepped in and along with Sloan, the four came up with language that both expressed the disgust of the Council and people’s right to be disgusting.

Brock’s concern for discouraging people from speaking at meetings was met with frustration from some in attendance when just hours earlier he reportedly commented to Next contributor Jason Mastbaum after he accurately spoke about the Councilmembers’ misstatements about their travel budgets, “and your employer would appreciate it if you didn’t go around spreading lies,” to which Mastbaum replied “it seems extremely inappropriate to bring my employer into this.”

Trigger warning: the below paragraph uses quotations from a public speaker that are full of hateful anti-Semitic statements. It is included as a demonstration of the need for people, and governments, to speak out against hate speech.

But earlier in the meeting, one public commentator, a white man, took it upon himself to demonstrate the need for an anti-hate-speech ordinance. During open public comment, the speaker went on an anti-Semitic tirade that included shock that he had “…just walked in on another Jew using the Old Testament to instruct government on what to do.” He later recounted an anecdote about a police officer, “he was calling two Jews to bust women and Black People on the Third Street Promenade.” He later referred to Jewish Heritage Month as “Jesus hating month.” Before he exceeded his allotted time, he had begun to explain to all of us that “the girls like Jesus.”

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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