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Bellingham City Council suspends Zoom public comment after hate speech incidents

Suspension begins Monday after slurs in Whatcom county meeting and across state

Bellingham City Council is weighing whether to suspend the work of the city's Immigration Advisory Board.
Starting today, Feb. 12, members of the public will not be able to provide public comment to the City Council online over Zoom due to hate incidents across the state. (Ralph Schwartz/Cascadia Daily News)
By Charlotte Alden General Assignment/Enterprise Reporter

Bellingham City Council has restricted public comment online over Zoom due to recent incidents of hate speech at Whatcom County Council and across the state.

Council President Dan Hammill gave direction to suspend meeting comments via remote technologies starting with the Monday, Feb. 12 meeting, said city Communications Director Janice Keller.

“We have no obligation to provide a forum for racist, homophobic and other offensive speech and we do not tolerate it,” Hammill said in a prepared statement. He said the suspension is in place “until further notice.”

Public comment can still be made in person, with sign-up sheets available outside the city council chambers starting at 6:30 p.m. on council nights, Jacqueline Lassiter, City of Bellingham office manager, wrote in a Feb. 8 email.

People are also able to provide public comment through email, phone or mail. Remote comment can be requested as an ADA accommodation if needed, said Keller.

Existing guidelines for public comment require people to refrain from using hate speech, personal attacks, obscene or indecent remarks, among other restrictions. Hammill said in the statement that the city council has “reviewed and strengthened” measures to address “disruptive and harmful incidents” following recent incidents at Whatcom County Council.

At the Feb. 6 county council meeting, people speaking on Zoom during open session used antisemitic tropes and racial and homophobic slurs before being shut down. 

Following one speaker, county council member Todd Donovan called the incidents an “abject failure of public process.” 

“It’s not fair to people that have legitimate things they want to say,” Donovan said at the Feb. 6 meeting. “We need to talk to legal on how we shut this down and comply with open meeting regulations because I’m done with it.” 

The county council moved into executive session shortly after and requested that the remaining virtual attendees submit their comments in writing online. County Council Chair Barry Buchanan apologized to attendees for the incidents.

“We’ll be working on a process to try to fix this,” Buchanan said. He was not immediately available Monday to provide an update on the county’s efforts to improve the public comment process.

Across Washington, other councils have been debating how to deal with hate speech in public comment sessions. City councils in Lynnwood and Tacoma have also dealt with racial slurs and antisemitism at public comment periods, according to Fox 13 Seattle.

The city of Blaine investigated a ‘Zoombombing’ incident during the Blaine City Council meeting on Oct. 23 after an anonymous attendee loudly repeated the N-word slur, the Northern Light reported.

In Bellingham, Hammill said in the statement that is important to provide a means for community members to give direct feedback, but said it is “equally important that we take a stand against tactics that are disruptive to our meetings and harmful to community members.” 

Charlotte Alden is CDN’s general assignment/enterprise reporter; reach her at charlottealden@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 123.

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