‘It hurt the ears, and it hurt the heart’: Laguna Beach mulls public meeting changes after hateful comments

Laguna Beach City Hall.
The disruptive events of Tuesday’s meeting of the Laguna Beach City Council were referred to as an incident of “Zoom bombing.” City officials are now weighing changes to avoid streaming unexpected hate comments by people who are “emboldened by their anonymity,” in the words of the city attorney.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Laguna Beach is contemplating changes to public meetings after a group of vulgar commenters participating remotely brought city business to a screeching halt on Tuesday.

Those who attended or listened in to the City Council meeting were exposed to hatred and bigotry on the eve of Valentine’s Day.

In succession, speakers came on via Zoom and used profanity-laced, extremist rhetoric that often concluded with a sign off that made reference to “Hitler” and “white power” and directed people to a website.


“We are revisiting our COVID-era Zoom meetings,” Interim City Manager Sean Joyce said. “It is my intention to reconsider those and, where feasible, eliminate Zoom access. We will ensure streaming so that folks can watch remotely. They’re able to presently and will continue to be able to write their comments to the City Council online, so that they are included as part of the public record, but for now at least, folks that want to make an audible comment to the council, they can do so by visiting us here in council chambers.”

City officials exercised several measures to attempt to get the meeting back on track. General public comment was suspended until the end of the meeting after 45 minutes. City Atty. Megan Garibaldi also notified the public of the boundaries for their speech and that they must remain on topic.

The meeting moved into its consent calendar, where the offensive statements resurfaced. Antisemitic, homophobic and racial slurs were voiced in abundance. Joyce said he instructed city staff to leave the room, noting that while there is 1st Amendment protection of freedom of speech, people are not required to listen to it.

“It hurt the ears, and it hurt the heart,” Joyce said. “There’s no way any of us could stand or bear to hear a second more of that.”

The disruptive events of Tuesday evening were referred to as an incident of “Zoombombing,” a phenomenon that Garibaldi had heard of but had not yet encountered.

Garibaldi said navigating such incidents legally is “incredibly difficult,” though she agreed that ending participation in meetings via Zoom is the “simplest solution.” During the meeting, Garibaldi made an announcement recognizing the free speech protections of the Brown Act and the 1st Amendment, but she also characterized the profane and hateful language as “embarrassing” and “frustrating” for the community.

“First Amendment case law hasn’t really kept up with where society is and the changes that we’ve seen with technology and the ability to speak,” Garibaldi said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The anonymity component of Zoom, which we don’t require people to give their names when they speak at meetings, … I don’t think there’s a lot of them, but there is some group out there that’s doing this, and they are incredibly emboldened by their anonymity.”

A recess was taken at one point in the proceedings to allow those offended to clear the room, which was near half its capacity for the meeting. A new date for the City Council meeting had not been noticed as of Thursday morning.

“When I got home [Tuesday] night and I was reflecting on it, I have to tell you it kind of broke my heart,” Mayor Sue Kempf said. “It did, because we’re just not like that. I was sitting in that room, and I was looking at those people … I was more concerned for them and trying to calm them down, making them understand what this actually was, that it happens elsewhere.

“Those kinds of things just don’t happen here, and it was very, very difficult to watch. … This is just a stark reminder how important civility is to a functioning city government, and we don’t tolerate hate in this town.”

A resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, described the upsetting scene, saying that attendees were yelling to “cut off the Zoom” as the obscene language came in.

“It was pretty alarming to sit there and listen to it all,” the resident said. “It’s disgusting. You’re listening to this, and you almost can’t believe that there are people who would say things like this in public, let alone think them, but it’s just an unfortunate situation, an unfortunate world that we’re in right now.”