Remote public comments banned after antisemitic tirades at city council meetings

At least two Minnesota communities have banned citizens viewing city council meetings online from participating in the standard public comment period, following antisemitic incidents in recent months. Duluth made the first move to end comments from remote speakers in November. The prohibition came after several individuals used the online comment period to launch a tirade of antisemitic remarks during a city council meeting, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

[Former Duluth City Council President] Janet Kennedy has announced an end to remote public commentary at future City Council meetings, following a stream of antisemitic invective unleashed by speakers using pseudonyms when the body last convened.

The council president noted that relatively few public speakers have participated using the council’s online platform to date, and many of those that have were from outside the community.

“To promote civility and focus on local participation, the council has decided to discontinue online public comments going forward,” Kennedy said.

The anonymous speakers took advantage of the online platform established to provide transparency for city meetings during the pandemic. The city continued to provide online access to city council meetings, including the opportunity for remote attendees to speak during the public comment period.

At meetings of the Duluth City Council, members of the public are allowed up to three minutes of time to address councilors on pretty much any subject of their choice. Prior to the pandemic, this testimony needed to be made in person. But when public meetings needed to be suspended due to health concerns, the council switched to a remote online platform and began allowing virtual commentary via that channel.

As the pandemic eased, and in-person meetings resumed, at large councilor Arik Forsman, who then served as council president, said that he decided to allow for both in-person and remote public comment at a time when many people still felt uneasy about sharing public spaces.

But he voiced support for revisiting that decision in the wake of an Oct. 30 meeting at which three back-to-back speakers engaged in antisemitic hate speech, prompting Kennedy to cut them short.

Members of the Rochester City Council faced a similar situation in December. The Post Bulletin noted that unkown antisemitic speakers viewing the meeting online hijacked the public comment period, leading councilors to take action to prevent it from happening again.

The council voted 6-1 Monday to end online access for making comments during its open-comment and public hearings after disruptions emerged during two meetings in December.

“The people who are calling on the phones are cowards,” council member Shaun Palmer said of callers who have made antisemitic comments while hiding their identities online.

He pointed out that it’s a trend seen in public comments made to elected officials throughout the country and needs to end during Rochester council meetings.

Residents will still be able to tune in remotely to city council meetings if unable to attend in person. In reality, city officials in Duluth and Rochester say few virtual attendees of city council meetings actually spoke up during the public comment period. While both cities plan to revisit the ban on virtual comments down the line, those who want to use the platform for all the wrong reasons will be out of luck for now.