Hallowell City Councilor Maureen Aucoin, left, and Charlotte Warren, who previously served as Hallowell’s mayor and as a state representative, applaud a speaker during the Hallowell United Rally on Wednesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Charlotte Warren was in her kitchen chopping vegetables and listening to the Sept. 11 Hallowell City Council meeting on Zoom when a man speaking during public comment launched into a 45-second antisemitic diatribe blaming the 9/11 terrorist attack on Jewish people.

“We’ve been hacked,” several city councilors said at the same time as he spoke. “Mute him.”

He continued to spew the hateful conspiracy theory while councilors tried to cut off his audio. When Warren, who has served as a state representative and mayor of Hallowell, unmuted herself to ask if anyone could make it stop, another Zoom participant began shouting expletives and racist and homophobic slurs at her.

“It was very, very scary,” she said. “They said my name. What made it so scary is that they know me.”

That disruption is among the growing number of “Zoom bombings” in Maine and other states in which callers have interrupted municipal meetings with racist, antisemitic and homophobic language. Portland city councilors have dealt for months with trolls calling in to express white nationalist views, while other cities are just beginning to experience it.

When municipalities throughout the country moved to online meetings at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, disruptions were commonplace, with people hacking in to display pornographic or other offensive images. But those pranks quickly quieted down. What’s happening now are coordinated attacks that often target specific people.


The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has been tracking an increase in antisemitic speech and trolling at public meetings across the country. The center reports that a few extremist groups are actively encouraging supporters to use the public comment portion of public meetings – especially those with the option to participate virtually – to “push antisemitic, white supremacist and anti-LGBTQ+ narratives.”

The driving force behind much of it is the Goyim Defense League, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled an antisemitic hate group. GDL leaders post information about municipal meetings online and encourage supporters to call in, often to meetings far from their own communities, said Carla Hill, senior director of investigative research for the Center on Extremism.

The group “takes pleasure in trolling the Jewish community” and posting recordings of it online, she said. “It is essentially hate entertainment that is monetized.”

Several Zoom callers in Portland last week shouted “Heil GDL” and plugged the group’s website before being cut off by city staff.

Public officials are now forced to make quick judgments about whom to mute when the first inkling of profanity or hate speech emerges. Many are trying in vain to strike a balance between encouraging participation and free speech, and limiting derogatory and threatening hate speech.

Some municipalities, including South Portland, are starting to scale back remote participation. Others, including Biddeford, are trying to verify commenters ahead of time. But many leaders in Maine appear to be walking on eggshells around the First Amendment. Threats of lawsuits have already been lobbed.


Contrary to popular belief, there is no First Amendment exception for so-called hate speech, said Dmitry Bam, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. Swearing or inappropriate language is typically protected speech, he said.

“Hate crime laws prohibit certain actions motivated by race or religion, but that’s what’s at stake here,” Bam said. “This is just engaging in speech that lots of people find offensive.”

A screen shows the online steam of the Portland City Council’s first in-person meeting in March since 2020. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Governments can legally provide guardrails for public speech in public forums, as long as those guardrails aren’t designed to limit specific viewpoints, he said.

Councils can’t ban talking about Jewish people unilaterally, for example. But they can ban talking about Jewish people when it’s not relevant to a vote on a tourism tax district.

Those same rules should apply whether a person shows up for a meeting in person or logs in via Zoom, Bam said.

“If you open up a forum for the public to have access to it, you can have some limitations, as long as they’re not content-based or viewpoint-based,” he said. “You can limit comments to that topic. You don’t have to tolerate speech that’s not the purpose of that forum.”



Nearly a dozen residents lined up to speak during public comment at the Sept. 6 Rockland City Council meeting. As one resident talked about homelessness in the community, a man’s voice boomed through the speakers.

“Can you hear me?” he asked before making a short but vulgar racist and antisemitic statement. City staff muted his audio, and the meeting continued – until a similar interruption a few minutes later. Audience members were visibly surprised, and councilors quickly apologized.

“If this coward wants his five minutes, he can come down here and wait like the rest of us,” the woman who was interrupted told the council.

It was the first time Rockland experienced a Zoom bombing, but it wasn’t entirely surprising, said Councilor Sarah Austin. Several local officials, including Austin, recently received racist mailings.

“We knew that we were on the radar of some of these people,” she said. “It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, but it was startling when it happened.”


Less than a week later, anonymous callers from California to Bangor spouted 9/11 conspiracies at public meetings. Richard Ward, who is known to call in to Portland City Council meetings to spout white supremacist ideology, also called in to meetings in San Diego and San Francisco last week to read the same rehearsed, antisemitic speech and then post clips of it online.

Staff cut off a commenter at the Sept. 11 Bangor City Council meeting when they felt it was clear the comments were racist and antisemitic, City Manager Debbie Laurie said.

Council Chairman Rick Fournier – who starts every meeting with a reminder that anyone making inappropriate or offensive remarks will be removed – said the council will not tolerate that kind of behavior. He said the council plans to discuss moving public comment to the end of the meeting, but councilors don’t want to cut Zoom participation entirely.

Hallowell city councilors ended their meeting early on Sept. 11 after two people who joined over Zoom unleashed hateful rants and harassed officials. The city plans to change how it handles remote participation to prevent something similar from happening again. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal, file

Police in Biddeford and Hallowell are investigating meeting disruptions in their cities to determine if crimes have occurred and if the people making these comments can be identified. Hallowell police Chief Christopher Lewis said his department is consulting with the Kennebec County district attorney and sent a letter of preservation to Zoom to lock any metadata about the participants to ensure it is available if investigators obtain a subpoena or search warrant.

Others have suggested prosecuting these callers, but with many using fake names and possibly fake or out-of-state phone numbers, that could prove difficult.

Lewis said the incident in Hallowell took a lot of people by surprise and that many found it alarming. A police officer will be at upcoming meetings to provide a sense of safety, he said.


“That type of language, that type of action, is not very welcome, and people are not used to that kind of hate speech in the city of Hallowell,” he said. “It placed a lot of people in heightened senses of fear and worry about future meetings.”


It has become routine during Portland City Council meetings for Mayor Kate Snyder to closely monitor public comments made via Zoom and cut them off if necessary. Callers, often using fake names and accents, regularly call in to spew hate speech, often about people of color and sometimes targeting specific elected officials.

Councilors have condemned the comments, and those targeted by the callers say it will not deter them from doing their work. The attacks “are tactics of intimidation and oppression,” Councilor Roberto Rodriguez said this month.

Last week, after multiple comments attacking people of color, Snyder broke down in tears. She left the room, calling for a short break. Then councilors voted to go into executive session to talk with the city attorney. They suspended council rules at least three times in order to end public comments early.

While Snyder and councilors appear ready to change the rules for remote participation, the mayor noted that they have to be consistent.


People line up to speak during the public comment section at a Portland City Council meeting in April. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We can’t cherry-pick what we like about the policy; if councilors get to join remotely, so does the public,” Snyder said last week. She said the policy would be reconsidered soon after councilors review it.

Jessica Grondin, a spokesperson for the city, said councilors are in agreement that they should explore whether any policy changes are needed but have not yet scheduled a workshop to discuss it.

At a workshop on homeless-encampment policy this week, the city said Friday that it will only allow in-person comment and encouraged people to submit written comment. The meeting will still be streamed on the city’s website.

During two debates last week, Portland’s five mayoral candidates were asked how they would deal with hate speech during council meetings and demonstrations by extremists. They all denounced the recent attacks.

“It sickens us to our core. It poisons the well of our democracy,” candidate Justin Costa said. “Whoever wins is going to do everything in their power to try to stop this.”



The morning after the events in Portland, Biddeford City Manager James Bennett sent a message to municipal managers throughout the state about what was happening in southern and central Maine. Managers are now collectively discussing what type of technology and controls their communities have used for meetings and what, if any, changes to make to avoid similar disruptions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine would like to see cities and towns continue to have virtual comment periods, which allow for better civic participation from people who cannot make it to a meeting, spokesperson Samuel Crankshaw said. The ACLU also believes it is important to allow general public comments so people can raise issues with public officials that are not on agendas.

“We don’t think during these public comments that government should be in the business of deciding what people are allowed to say and muting what they put into the record,” Crankshaw said. “When people say things and use this atrocious language that is hateful and targeting people, councilors can push back and say the towns they represent don’t stand for these values.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed Americans have the right to criticize public officials, but federal courts have been less clear about whether rules policing decorum are allowed.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a Southborough public comment policy that prohibited “inappropriate” language violated free speech rights in the state constitution. The justices ruled that “such civility restraints on the content of free speech at a public comment session in a public meeting are forbidden.”

Meeting disruptions have been particularly intense in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California. In Sonoma County, people can no longer use Zoom to comment during county meetings. In San Diego, the city council denounced the disruptive conduct but so far has not changed its policies for commenting.


Hill, from the Center on Extremism, said the most common tactic for boards has been to cut off callers when their comments veer away from the subject the board is discussing, but some communities have eliminated call-in options. Even that won’t completely stop the behavior because some extremists show up in person to harass board members, she said.

“It’s troubling because you worry that some people will be afraid to represent their community and work to make their community a better place,” she said. “It makes people not want to serve our government because they don’t want to be harassed in this way.”

Biddeford City Hall. The City Council is going to require all remote participants to use an authenticated Zoom account, which provides a greater chance a user could be identified.


Following a Zoom bombing during a meeting this month, the Biddeford City Council agreed on the value of giving the public as many opportunities to participate in meetings as possible and decided not to close down remote participation entirely. Instead, councilors voted unanimously last week to require all remote participants to use authenticated Zoom accounts, which offer a greater chance that users could be identified, if necessary.

The South Portland City Council no longer allows people to participate in meetings remotely. It was already considering the switch because Zoom participation has dropped noticeably in recent months, Mayor Kate Lewis said. But after several Zoom participants used extremely offensive language, the council pulled the plug.

“It became very clear earlier this month that a move back to in-person meetings may make our meetings more efficiently focused on the issues of the day – so the council, city staff and public can spend their time taking up the issues that are on the agenda and doing the public’s business,” Lewis said.


She believes the city still offers abundant opportunity for residents to provide input during public comment – at the beginning and end of each meeting, on specific agenda items, and by writing to or calling councilors.

In Hallowell, there will now be much tighter muting and waiting-room controls in place for meetings, according to City Manager Gary Lamb. The city attorney and mayor are working on developing a code of conduct for public comment. This week, more than two dozen residents gathered at a rally to denounce hate and the comments made during the City Council meeting.

When the Rockland City Council meets again on Oct. 2, Zoom participants will no longer be able to unmute themselves. Austin, the city councilor, hopes this strikes a balance between allowing remote participation and minimizing opportunities for disruption.

“It’s very important to me that we keep those options, but also that those options not be a platform for hate speech,” she said.

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