News

Proposed hate speech law prompts debate in Palo Alto

As City Council member proposes making hate speech a misdemeanor, critics say law would violate free speech rights

A sign reads "Stop Hate Crimes Against Anyone" at rally to bring awareness to attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders outside City Hall on May 2, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Seeking to demonstrate their commitment to oppose racism, Palo Alto leaders are preparing to consider on Monday a legally dubious proposal for an ordinance that would make hate speech a local crime.

The law, which has been championed for months by council member Greg Tanaka, would target individuals who engage in hate speech based on factors such as race, ethnicity and gender identity. At recent meetings, Tanaka pointed to recent incidents targeting Asian residents and business owners, most notably the racial-hate tirade that was directed at the owner of Fuki Sushi last year.

The topic of hate crimes and hate incidents has also been the focus of recent meetings by the Human Relations Commission. In March, the commission recommended that the city invite a recently created unit of the FBI's San Francisco division, which focuses on hate crimes, to educate the community and the Police Department about the topic. Commissioners also recommended that the council increase the city's marketing efforts to raise public awareness on how to report hate crimes and hate incidents.

Tanaka wants the city to go further. He suggested in September that hate incidents are "woefully underreported," particularly against members of the Asian community. Citing his conversations with participants at last year's "Stop Asian Hate" rallies, he suggested creating an ordinance that would give the city the power to issue fines against perpetrators of these acts. He noted that in the Fuki Sushi incident, the owner ended up feeling helpless after the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office did not press charges against the man who yelled at her and called her "un-American" and told her, "Go back your country," during a dispute over a bill.

"Even if the action is small, like a $100 fine — something where it says this kind of action, this kind of behavior is not right and not acceptable in our city," Tanaka said at the Sept. 14 meeting of the council's Policy and Services Committee.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

In most recent cases, hate crimes in Palo Alto have involved vandalism, according to a new report from the Police Department. The report lists nine hate crimes that had occurred in Palo Alto in 2021, seven of which involved vandalism of city property. The other two were an assault with a deadly weapon against a Middle Eastern individual and battery causing serious bodily injury against an individual based on their sexual orientation.

So far this year, the department has received reports of three hate crimes, all of which involved vandalism on private property. Two were directed at Black individuals while the third was based on nationality rather than race, according to the police data.

But while city leaders routinely acknowledge that hate incidents are a major problem, not everyone agrees that a local law is the right way to go. A new report from City Manager Ed Shikada notes that hate-based criminal conduct is already punished by existing state law and suggests that the city focus its efforts on education and outreach rather than draft a new ordinance.

"A local ordinance would have to comply with the same Constitutional limitations and would not likely be a useful tool for police or prosecutors," the report states. "Increasing awareness and promoting reporting, on the other hand, could make valuable contributions to the effort to foster healthy and safe communities where all residents can experience a strong sense of belonging without fear."

Among the biggest challenges for the city in adopting an ordinance of the sort proposed by Tanaka is the need to ensure that it does not run afoul of free speech rights, which are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Aram James, a former public attorney who frequently advocates for social justice and criticizes police policies, said this week that he strongly opposes Tanaka's proposed ordinance.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

"The idea that we're going to potentially make stand-alone hate speech a misdemeanor ordinance flies in the face of the Constitution," James told the council on May 2. "The First Amendment was designed not to protect popular speech; popular speech doesn't need any protection."

The Human Relations Commission has also focused on education and outreach in addressing recent hate crimes, which include a string of threats that were directed last year against First United Methodist Church's pastor, who is Black. Palo Alto officials also spoke out against hate in February, after flyers with anti-Semitic messages were dropped off at various locations in Palo Alto.

"When you look at hate that was given to a Black clergy woman and you look at Anti-Semitic incidents … it's very scary, particularly for these faith communities," the Rev. Kaloma Smith, who chairs the commission, said at the commission's March 10 meeting.

The Rev. Kaloma Smith exhorts people at a prayer vigil for George Floyd on May 22, 2021, in Palo Alto to boldly stand up for those who are oppressed. Smith, who chairs the city's Human Relations Commission, has supported increasing community awareness about hate crimes and hate incidents. Photo by Jocelyn Dong.

The Palo Alto Police Department already has policies in place to address both hate crimes and hate incidents. The city defines "hate crimes" as "criminal acts committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: (a) disability (b) gender (c) nationality (d) race or ethnicity (e) religion (f) sexual orientation (g) association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics." The department has detailed guidelines in place for investigating these incidents and supporting victims.

Hate incidents, by contrast, are actions that are motivated by hate or bias but are protected by the First Amendment. Examples of hate incidents include name-calling, distribution of hate material in public places, display of hate material on one's property, and insults and epithets, according to the Police Department's policy manual. Given these protections, Shikada concluded in the report that a municipal misdemeanor ordinance "could not go further than state law currently does to deter or punish hate incidents."

The recommendation notwithstanding, the council agreed on May 2 to schedule a hearing for May 9 on a broad range of efforts pertaining to hate crimes and incidents, including a discussion of the new misdemeanor ordinance. The council will also consider a recommendation from its Policy and Services Committee that all council members receive training on microaggression by next month. According to staff, the city will hold three separate training sessions that would be conducted by the organization CircleUp Education.

Council member Greer Stone, who chairs the Policy and Services Committee and who works as a teacher at Carlmont High School, strongly recommended in February that the council receive the training, which is designed to help participants identify instances of subtle and, at times, unintentional discrimination.

"No matter how much you do this work, it's always incredible what you learn," Stone said at the Feb. 8 meeting of the committee. "And sometimes, you're not happy to learn that you have this microaggression, so to be able to identify it and try to address it is really critical."

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Stay informed on important crime news. Sign up for our FREE daily Express newsletter.

Proposed hate speech law prompts debate in Palo Alto

As City Council member proposes making hate speech a misdemeanor, critics say law would violate free speech rights

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, May 5, 2022, 9:00 am

Seeking to demonstrate their commitment to oppose racism, Palo Alto leaders are preparing to consider on Monday a legally dubious proposal for an ordinance that would make hate speech a local crime.

The law, which has been championed for months by council member Greg Tanaka, would target individuals who engage in hate speech based on factors such as race, ethnicity and gender identity. At recent meetings, Tanaka pointed to recent incidents targeting Asian residents and business owners, most notably the racial-hate tirade that was directed at the owner of Fuki Sushi last year.

The topic of hate crimes and hate incidents has also been the focus of recent meetings by the Human Relations Commission. In March, the commission recommended that the city invite a recently created unit of the FBI's San Francisco division, which focuses on hate crimes, to educate the community and the Police Department about the topic. Commissioners also recommended that the council increase the city's marketing efforts to raise public awareness on how to report hate crimes and hate incidents.

Tanaka wants the city to go further. He suggested in September that hate incidents are "woefully underreported," particularly against members of the Asian community. Citing his conversations with participants at last year's "Stop Asian Hate" rallies, he suggested creating an ordinance that would give the city the power to issue fines against perpetrators of these acts. He noted that in the Fuki Sushi incident, the owner ended up feeling helpless after the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office did not press charges against the man who yelled at her and called her "un-American" and told her, "Go back your country," during a dispute over a bill.

"Even if the action is small, like a $100 fine — something where it says this kind of action, this kind of behavior is not right and not acceptable in our city," Tanaka said at the Sept. 14 meeting of the council's Policy and Services Committee.

In most recent cases, hate crimes in Palo Alto have involved vandalism, according to a new report from the Police Department. The report lists nine hate crimes that had occurred in Palo Alto in 2021, seven of which involved vandalism of city property. The other two were an assault with a deadly weapon against a Middle Eastern individual and battery causing serious bodily injury against an individual based on their sexual orientation.

So far this year, the department has received reports of three hate crimes, all of which involved vandalism on private property. Two were directed at Black individuals while the third was based on nationality rather than race, according to the police data.

But while city leaders routinely acknowledge that hate incidents are a major problem, not everyone agrees that a local law is the right way to go. A new report from City Manager Ed Shikada notes that hate-based criminal conduct is already punished by existing state law and suggests that the city focus its efforts on education and outreach rather than draft a new ordinance.

"A local ordinance would have to comply with the same Constitutional limitations and would not likely be a useful tool for police or prosecutors," the report states. "Increasing awareness and promoting reporting, on the other hand, could make valuable contributions to the effort to foster healthy and safe communities where all residents can experience a strong sense of belonging without fear."

Among the biggest challenges for the city in adopting an ordinance of the sort proposed by Tanaka is the need to ensure that it does not run afoul of free speech rights, which are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Aram James, a former public attorney who frequently advocates for social justice and criticizes police policies, said this week that he strongly opposes Tanaka's proposed ordinance.

"The idea that we're going to potentially make stand-alone hate speech a misdemeanor ordinance flies in the face of the Constitution," James told the council on May 2. "The First Amendment was designed not to protect popular speech; popular speech doesn't need any protection."

The Human Relations Commission has also focused on education and outreach in addressing recent hate crimes, which include a string of threats that were directed last year against First United Methodist Church's pastor, who is Black. Palo Alto officials also spoke out against hate in February, after flyers with anti-Semitic messages were dropped off at various locations in Palo Alto.

"When you look at hate that was given to a Black clergy woman and you look at Anti-Semitic incidents … it's very scary, particularly for these faith communities," the Rev. Kaloma Smith, who chairs the commission, said at the commission's March 10 meeting.

The Palo Alto Police Department already has policies in place to address both hate crimes and hate incidents. The city defines "hate crimes" as "criminal acts committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: (a) disability (b) gender (c) nationality (d) race or ethnicity (e) religion (f) sexual orientation (g) association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics." The department has detailed guidelines in place for investigating these incidents and supporting victims.

Hate incidents, by contrast, are actions that are motivated by hate or bias but are protected by the First Amendment. Examples of hate incidents include name-calling, distribution of hate material in public places, display of hate material on one's property, and insults and epithets, according to the Police Department's policy manual. Given these protections, Shikada concluded in the report that a municipal misdemeanor ordinance "could not go further than state law currently does to deter or punish hate incidents."

The recommendation notwithstanding, the council agreed on May 2 to schedule a hearing for May 9 on a broad range of efforts pertaining to hate crimes and incidents, including a discussion of the new misdemeanor ordinance. The council will also consider a recommendation from its Policy and Services Committee that all council members receive training on microaggression by next month. According to staff, the city will hold three separate training sessions that would be conducted by the organization CircleUp Education.

Council member Greer Stone, who chairs the Policy and Services Committee and who works as a teacher at Carlmont High School, strongly recommended in February that the council receive the training, which is designed to help participants identify instances of subtle and, at times, unintentional discrimination.

"No matter how much you do this work, it's always incredible what you learn," Stone said at the Feb. 8 meeting of the committee. "And sometimes, you're not happy to learn that you have this microaggression, so to be able to identify it and try to address it is really critical."

Comments

John
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on May 5, 2022 at 9:28 am
John, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 9:28 am

Repulsive and anti-American. Councilman Tanaka often has a significantly different take on political issues. While I welcome his focus on our mathematical certainty of pension default, the very idea of politicians and police regulating speech is anathema to this nation. Reality check: You have no right to avoid hearing mean words.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 5, 2022 at 10:32 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 10:32 am

Orwellian attitudes abound.

Who decides what is definition of hate? What criteria does anyone use to define hate? Crimes happen to all people of all demographics, a crime that happens to one person may have nothing to do with their demographic, just the same as crime against anyone. Differences of opinion are not hateful unless there is an actual threat or crime taking place.

Free speech should be cherished. Free speech sometimes means hearing something you don't like. Thought police have no business in Palo Alto.


PST
Registered user
South of Midtown
on May 5, 2022 at 11:14 am
PST, South of Midtown
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 11:14 am

It’s absolutely absurd the city is even considering this nonsense. Free speech , even things you don’t want to hear, is essential to our democracy. It’s a dangerous and slippery slope to try to muzzle anyone. The laws in place are adequate. Once again Tanaka is muddled and confused which often seems to be his state of mind.


Citizen
Registered user
College Terrace
on May 5, 2022 at 11:30 am
Citizen , College Terrace
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 11:30 am

This is wrong to propose this. Free speech is not always pretty. 'Hate speech' is in the eye/ear of the beholder.

We are blessed to live in a country whose constitution enshrines freedom of speech.

This is a political ploy.


staying home
Registered user
Crescent Park
on May 5, 2022 at 11:41 am
staying home, Crescent Park
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 11:41 am

Not all speech is protected by the first amendment:
Web Link

Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats, and commercial speech such as advertising. Defamation that causes harm to reputation is a tort and also an exception to free speech.



Barron Parker Too
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 5, 2022 at 12:00 pm
Barron Parker Too, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 12:00 pm

Criminalizing, with fines, speech that makes someone uncomfortable? Where are the adults on the Palo Alto City Council? Why on earth is the city council giving time, energy and oxygen to such a repulsive idea?

This is idiotic. America is the birthplace of the idea, cemented into our constitution by the First Amendment, that an individual has the right to think and speak and write. Compare with Russia today! Nothing is more un-American than regulation of and punishment for voicing ideas, however popular or unpopular. Cancel the meeting, or subject Palo Alto to ridicule from the entire free world.


Banes
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2022 at 12:40 pm
Banes, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 12:40 pm

More Censorship! This is preposterous! This amounts to nothing more than censorship. We would have to write a whole new dictionary of terms that are considered “hate words” and just As soon as that is done there would be new terms, so what is the point. Other than to steal that one freedom that separates us from the rest of the world. Freedom of speech.
Then there are adjectives Older than time, such as queer, e.g.; that person was behaving queerly, oh that’s a very queer color combination you’re wearing.
E.g., references to Latino will be censored and they will not be able to have businesses /restaurants called Latino or Mexican restaurants or Asian restaurants, this is absolutely absurd. Everything will have to be classified as “American?” Further…
We would have to teach our children in grade school when they’re learning to read those “words” which terms never to use ever - and they will never be able to read or understand any books prior the date they were educated or born. They will be PhD classes for old American jargon. This is nothing more than the burning of books, Censorship and where does that go ? Censorship is the keystone of communism.
Freedom of speech is an American Right. It is not a God given right because people all over the world are censored shackled and arrested for their speech in other countries.
This is what diversity breeds, homogeneous societies Share common vales, they behave in compliance with their values, they share common values.
Rather than turning everything into a crime, why don’t we teach values First! American values, Which means people from other cultures bringing their diversity to America, first learn the values, & laws of America — before they impose their own. Learning American language would be a good start. Becoming citizens vs. Undocumented, non-tax paying citizens? Foreigners commit crimes because they don’t even know the laws here, in their country it was OK. Who buys liability insurance in Other countr


Banes
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2022 at 12:53 pm
Banes, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 12:53 pm

This kind of censorship Will simply bring about more racist polarities and ill will instead of acceptance. Why not burn all the books? Let’s not remember our past, let’s not remember there was a Civil War once. This kind of censorship will simply encourage bullying at a younger age. Why? Because children always use words & behaviors that are “forbidden” when they learn their words. Tell a little boy he can’t play with guns and suddenly the plastic garden spade turns into a weapon of sorts. You can’t force people to be robots, people are human and they have Faults and diversity, and now there’s like 1000 different versions of male and female, When before there are only two sexes.
Why don’t we try to impose the laws that are being broken instead of making more laws. They can’t catch criminals because if they use a race to describe a criminal or suspect or witness questionable behavior, suddenly they are invalidated as a racist or sexist. Without profiling lW enforcement would never be able to do their jobs. Is that what we want to give up too? People are born 1000 different shades of different, do we want to make that a crime?


Joe
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on May 5, 2022 at 2:58 pm
Joe, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 2:58 pm

Hate speech is awful but there's no point debating whether Palo Alto should ban it because the Constitution clearly forbids the city from doing so. It would take a constitutional amendment, not a municipal ordinance, to change that. I don't know Mr. Tanaka or his views but I do know he's running for Congress, and he must be incredibly cynical to waste the time of his current colleagues in the city council pretending that this is a serious proposal just so he can boost the profile of his campaign for higher office.


Forever Name
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 5, 2022 at 4:04 pm
Forever Name, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 4:04 pm

Perhaps instead we should ban anyone from running for City Council (or U.S. Congress) who lacks a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution or municipal law. I would feel safer as a PA resident with a restriction on those candidates who lack this basic civic knowledge than more speech censorship. The lengths local political candidates will go to with transparent virtue signaling are hysterical, especially when it's illegal. Meantime, I would imagine PAPD is getting a good laugh out of Tanaka's effort to supersede ordinances already in place that PAPD already enforces.


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on May 5, 2022 at 4:21 pm
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 4:21 pm

Isn't so-called "hate speech" protected by the 1st amendment as long as you don't incite violence, attack, threaten, slander/libel, or otherwise break the law when speaking? And who exactly will decide what is acceptable speech vs hate speech? One person's hate speech is another person's protected speech. To paraphrase a cautionary quote "Who will watch the enforcers" of this very bad attempt to suppress free speech? I don't want some whacked out extremest with ANY political, social, or moral agenda to tell me what I can and can't say. There's already too much of that today at our universities and colleges and at many "news" organizations.


What Will They Do Next
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 5, 2022 at 4:37 pm
What Will They Do Next, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 4:37 pm

Well I guess Greg now knows how people feel about his proposal if the comments above are a reflection of how most feel, me included. While some of these incidents may go unreported, I believe Palo Alto is probably near the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to "hate" crimes and language. We seem to be pretty inclusive as a community and although my wife and I have experienced some subtle anti-Asian sentiment over the years (she's American born Asian, I'm Caucasian and living in Palo Alto over 40 years) it has been infrequent. When we look at the source, we just shrug our shoulders and move on. Criminal acts are one thing. Ignorance, stupidity and in some cases jealousy and resentment are another. You can't fix stupid.


Jennifer
Registered user
another community
on May 5, 2022 at 5:41 pm
Jennifer, another community
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 5:41 pm

Making any type of "free" speech a "crime" is a little over the top. Do they really think anything will change? Is anybody really in favor of this nonsense?


BP Parent
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 5, 2022 at 7:31 pm
BP Parent, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 5, 2022 at 7:31 pm
John Donegan
Registered user
another community
on May 6, 2022 at 7:46 am
John Donegan, another community
Registered user
on May 6, 2022 at 7:46 am

My prediction is that activists will define "hate speech" as any speech that they really "hate", and want to punish.


Pops9
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 6, 2022 at 8:43 am
Pops9, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on May 6, 2022 at 8:43 am

I wish the city council would focus on running the city. If the article is accurate, this is already covered. City council time spent on topics that belong with the state or federal government means that less time is spent on governing what only the city council can control. Last time I looked, the city has a long list of items that demand attention that only the city council can provide.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 6, 2022 at 10:59 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 6, 2022 at 10:59 am

John Donegan is right. People define hate speech as anything they don't agree with. Differing opinions is not hateful, it is just a different opinion.


Paly02
Registered user
Crescent Park
on May 6, 2022 at 2:12 pm
Paly02, Crescent Park
Registered user
on May 6, 2022 at 2:12 pm

The City staff report on this item is right - an ordinance would be unconstitutional and ineffective. A better way to handle the rise in hate crimes and incidents would be to have city programming about how to safely de-escalate an incident as it is happening, or other programming that reinforces community inclusion for everyone. Not all solutions to this problem have to be done by making new laws - we can have civic or social engagement on this issue instead.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park
on May 7, 2022 at 3:34 am
Observer, Menlo Park
Registered user
on May 7, 2022 at 3:34 am

Tanaka,
I hate brocolli.
There, I said it.
Arrest me.


KenG
Registered user
Los Altos
on May 8, 2022 at 8:21 pm
KenG, Los Altos
Registered user
on May 8, 2022 at 8:21 pm

My question is, who determines hate speech? Will it be the liberals who hate conservative speech or the conservatives who hate liberal speech?


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on May 12, 2022 at 6:25 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on May 12, 2022 at 6:25 am

This whole topic is a diversion from what the city council is supposed to be doing. These diversions usually occur when the priority items that have a measurable factor of achievement are not being met. It is called "mudding the waters." A lot of that going around right now. It is not the job of the PACC to manage the population. They are suppose to manage the city and make sure the projects that are in process get completed in a timely manner.

this city appears to attract a lot of people who are looking to work their way up the political system. If we learned anything from the Disney experience is that people have personal feelings that may not conform to what the current activist are selling. That says that this city is not of one thought only and we do not assign any management of thought to a group who are busy trying to work the political system as opposed to doing the job they are assigned to do.


































































































































































































Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.