Watch CBS News

Antisemitic remarks prompt Walnut Creek to end online, phoned-in comments during public meetings

U.S. antisemitic incidents hit record high
Antisemitic incidents in U.S. hit record high in 2022, Anti-Defamation League finds 04:20

Antisemitic speech has prompted the city of Walnut Creek to join other Bay Area cities in shutting down online and phone-in public comments during public meetings.

The city announced its decision to stop taking remarks remotely via phone and Zoom on Tuesday after months of harassment by antisemitic callers, frequently targeting City Councilmember Kevin Wilk, who is Jewish.

Wilk said it's a strategy of far-right, white nationalist groups like White Lives Matters California, who use locally broadcast public forums to broadcast their messages. Wilk has often been mentioned by name by callers, who Wilk said typically use pseudonyms like "Eddie from Walnut Creek" and don't show their faces over Zoom.

"It's sad really," Wilk said Thursday. "A valuable tool of communicating with local government has been forced to be taken away due to hate speech hijacking it."

The strategy has been used in other municipalities, including San Jose, Richmond, El Cerrito, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Sonoma County, Redwood City and Fremont have already stopped allowing people to speak in public comment portions of meetings via Zoom and phone calls.

The Brown Act, which governs public meetings in California, only requires municipalities to offer the public a chance to address public meetings in person. The pandemic obviously changed how the public interacted with its elected officials, and most municipalities kept the Zoom and phone option open after reopening to the public.

But now, if people promoting hate speech want to air their views -- at least in Walnut Creek -- they will have to show up in person. The new policy -- which was officially an administrative decision by City Manager Don Buckshi -- applies to all city-run public meetings.

"We are conducting business meetings with city and resident issues and interests at the core," Buckshi said in a statement. "Some of the comments we are hearing are deeply disturbing and sickening. Those making the hateful comments are not residents of Walnut Creek and in many instances are not residents of California. These types of hate filled comments do not reflect the values of Walnut Creek."

Walnut Creek spokesperson Betsy Burkhart said Zoom and call-in speaking was a great way for people who otherwise couldn't come to meetings to have their voices heard. She said all five council members supported the move.

"We kept it open because it expands the public's access," Burkhart said. "Unfortunately, some people weren't using it for city business."

People can still offer written comments to be submitted at least two hours before meetings.

"This is unfortunately a consequence of the rampant antisemitic and racist hate speech that callers from outside the region and even outside the state have been spreading using public city and county board meeting platforms," Wilk said. "We have taken this disappointing step to ensure that Walnut Creek will not provide our platform to amplify this heinous hate speech. Due to the First Amendment, allowing remote comments limits the ability for public entities to control someone intent on spreading hate speech."

No group has officially taken responsibility for the comments to the Walnut Creek council, which have come fairly regularly for more than a year, though at least one caller said he's with "WLM," which presumably means White Lives Matter.

The commenting started around the same time racist flyers began appearing around Walnut Creek, Concord, and Marin and Sonoma counties in September 2022. The fliers appeared on driveways and sidewalks during the Jewish High Holidays between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.