Despite widespread concern about a recent spate of racist incidents, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday dropped a controversial proposal to make hate speech a misdemeanor.
Instead, the council unanimously agreed to follow the directions of its Human Relations Commission and focus its energy on community education and outreach. This will involve reaching out to the FBI, which has recently created a strategic unit to focus on hate incidents and address the community about hate crimes and hate incidents. The new initiative may also involve other organizations, including faith-based institutions and civil-rights nonprofits such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
The council will not, however, press ahead any further with a local law banning hate speech, a move that was championed by council member Greg Tanaka. During numerous meetings last year, Tanaka cited the conversations he had at last year's "Stop Asian Hate" rallies, which led him to believe that hate incidents are grossly underreported. He also cited the summer 2021 incident at Fuki Sushi, where the restaurant owner withstood a racist tirade from a customer after a dispute over the bill.
The Fuki Sushi episode was one of several high-profile hate incidents that occurred in Palo Alto over the past year. In February, flyers with anti-Semitic messages were dropped off at several locations throughout the city. And last August, a senior pastor at First United Methodist Church received numerous threats that may have been triggered by her Black Lives Matter poster.
The council agreed on Monday that it can do more to address the wave of hate incidents, particularly when it comes to educating the community about how to identify, report and oppose hate incidents. They also agreed a local law targeting hate speech would likely be neither legal nor effective.
City Attorney Molly Stump noted that California law already has provisions that criminalize hate-motivated acts and hate speech that rises to the level of constituting a criminal threat. Beyond these two areas, however, speech is generally protected by the First Amendment, she said.
"This is true even when the words that are uttered are hateful, heinous, morally repugnant and harmful," Stump said. "When talking about First Amendment-protected speech, local and state governments are not permitted to punish that speech. That is not consistent with our First Amendment principles."
Aram James, a former public defender and frequent critic of the city's Police Department, has been a staunch opponent of the proposed hate-speech law. He also took issue, however, with the council's and Human Relation Commission's decision to get the FBI involved in outreach to the community on hate crimes. He alluded to the federal agency's long history of targeting, arresting and sabotaging the Black Panthers and other organizations committed to Black empowerment and civil rights under the leadership of director Jay Edgar Hoover.
"The last group we want to bring in to lecture us on hate crimes is the FBI," James said. "We have groups at Stanford who don't have the long despicable reputation of going after Black groups and political organizations like the FBI."
Council member Greer Stone had no such reservations. While he also alluded to the FBI's blemished history on race relations, he argued that the agency has made efforts to come to terms with its troubling past. Stone said he had completed a course in the FBI's Citizens Academy, which aimed to promote greater trust between the community and the agency. Inviting the FBI unit that focuses on hate crimes to address the Palo Alto community would spark interest in the topic, he said.
"We're really going to limit the FBI's involvement in Palo Alto to simply be an educational force," Stone said.
Both Stone and Tanaka emphasized a distinction between hate crimes, which can be prosecuted, and hate incidents, which are generally protected by the First Amendment. Both pointed to the gray areas in free-speech law, with Stone noting that some forms of speech — including threats, blackmail and incitement to lawful action — can in fact lead to criminal charges under legal precedents.
Tanaka said he has held six different meetings with residents about hate speech, an area that he argued has plenty of "gray area."
"The more I talk to people about freedom of speech, the more complex it is," Tanaka said. "It's actually a really complex topic. … It's unfortunate that there's no direct way to deal with the couple of incidents we had in the city last year."
But despite his past advocacy for a local law, Tanaka opted not to press the issue any further.
Those who address the council on the topic also opposed the proposed law. Palo Alto resident Kat Snyder agreed with city staff's conclusion that a local law targeting hate speech would be ineffective and illegal. She suggested that rather than focus on a new ordinance, the city should use local libraries to disseminate information about how to report hate incidents.
"It is psychologically taxing to anyone who is a victim of a hate incident, and hard to come forward and report things while also taking care of the other responsibilities in their lives," Snyder wrote to the council. "Having a dedicated space where resources are available with someone who can walk them through that could be a lifesaver."
The council also agreed to endorse Assembly Bill 1947, legislation that would require all California law enforcement agencies to develop hate-crime policies and report them to the Department of Justice. The bill from Assembly members Phil Ting and Richard Bloom would also require the Commission of Peace Officer Standards and Training to include training on anti-Sikh, anti-Asian and anti-Hindu crimes.
Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder said that the law would likely have very limited impact on the Police Department, which already has robust policies in place for investigating hate crime. The legislation, he said, seeks to create a more uniform standard across the state and focuses primarily on law enforcement agencies that currently don't have such policies in place.
"We're very comfortable with what we have and if there's any additional changes that need to be made if and when this passes, we'll make those accordingly," Binder told the council.