Portland Mayor Kate Snyder delivers the annual State of the City address in council chambers in October. Snyder said she frequently has to mute people who call in to City Council meetings via Zoom during public comment periods, then spew hate speech and harass council members.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder’s finger hovered over her keyboard as she periodically glanced toward Corporation Council Michael Goldman, looking for his nod, before hitting mute and silencing the anonymous voice on the other end of the line.

Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The scene at Wednesday’s City Council meeting follows a familiar pattern now. Closely monitoring public comments made via Zoom has become a big part of Snyder’s role. Callers using fake names and addresses routinely call in to spew hate speech and sometimes to harass specific members of the council. On Wednesday night, Councilors Andrew Zarro and April Fournier were targeted.

“These attacks are intended to disrupt our governance,” said Zarro, “but they will not deter me in my work.”

Portland City Councilor April Fournier.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Fournier didn’t return messages asking to discuss the threats. She posted on social media Thursday that she wrote a letter to herself as those comments were coming in, telling herself to keep going.

“I will continue to do this work. I will continue to show up for my community. Whether we agree or disagree,” the letter reads. “I will continue to hold this space and create more space for the next generation that will come after me.”

Councilor Mark Dion stood up near the end of the meeting to condemn the attacks, which he called “a form of emotional and psychological terrorism.”


“As a minority, these attacks unfortunately feel familiar,” Councilor Roberto Rodriguez said in an interview Thursday. “They are tactics of intimidation and oppression.”

The City Council has allowed public participation via Zoom since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but Snyder says the hate speech and harassment has gotten worse in recent months. Councilors take public comment at the start of every meeting and before each vote.

“I have to be on alert for every single public comment period,” Snyder said.

She cuts off callers at the first hint of profanity or mention of a specific person, in accordance with chamber rules. Callers have also become more sophisticated over time, now using actual Portland addresses and sometimes the real names of local business owners to seem more legitimate.

Snyder and other councilors are quick to note that Zoom does make it easier for the public to participate in city meetings, which are held in the evening and can run late – parking can be an issue, and finding child care isn’t always easy. Zoom has helped eliminate some of these barriers.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, the mayor said the proliferation of hateful speech makes her miss the days when people could only offer public comment in person.


“I feel badly for my colleagues, I feel badly for the community that comes to watch, it just doesn’t feel good to me at all and I feel super responsible,” Snyder said.

A little girl sat in her father’s lap Wednesday in the front row of the chamber. He covered her ears as one caller spewed homophobic slurs in the middle of the meeting. For some councilors, scenes like these are starting to outweigh the benefits of easily accessible meetings.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the council enters into discussions about abandoning hybrid meetings,” Dion said.

“We absolutely can do that, it’s 100% on the table,” added Zarro, “but I don’t want to unless we have exhausted all other options.”

There are other options. Some municipalities, including Burlington, Vermont, have instituted a more rigid screening process for remote meeting participants. Other municipalities continue to grapple with this same issue, including South Portland and Biddeford.

Dion said he would like the council to file incident reports with local police. He emphasized that should these callers go on to commit crimes, perhaps a paper trail of their harassment will result in harsher sentences.


Zarro and Rodriguez say they want a more stringent vetting process for Zoom participants. Zarro said he wants to see participants reliably identified before they speak, and Rodriguez said he is interested in potentially screening comments before they are played publicly.

Dmitry Bam, vice dean at the University of Maine Law School, said the City Council is well within its legal rights to explore any of these options. He said governments can legally provide guardrails for public speech even in public forums, so long as those guardrails aren’t designed to limit specific viewpoints.

Richard Ward, a former City Council candidate and outspoken conservative activist, regularly calls into City Council meetings, often to read manifestos speaking out against “white oppression.”

He said he has nothing to do with the harassment and hate speech, but he doesn’t think it should be cut off.

“It’s all free speech,” Ward said.

He believes that if the council were to end Zoom participation, people would come in person to meetings and “act out more.”


As far as next steps for the council, “that may have to play out after my term,” said Snyder, who believes councilors could face backlash for any effort to limit remote public participation.

“But if people are game now, I’m willing to have the conversation,” she said.

There is one thing that Ward and all the councilors are actually in agreement about: the purpose of these calls.

“It’s to make a mockery of the system,” said Ward.

“These people are testing to see how far they can go,” said Zarro, “and it stops now.”

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story