Over the past few weeks, multiple cities in Massachusetts have experienced disturbing hate speech interruptions to their city council meetings. In Worcester and Framingham, a neo-Nazi group known as the Goyim Defense League has used the public comments portion of the meetings on multiple occasions to spout antisemitic and racist hatred. In response to these disruptions, cities are wrestling with how public meetings can be altered to limit hate speech while protecting civic participation. Worcester mayor Joseph Petty sits on the city council. He spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.  

Arun Rath: Give us a bit more detail about how the city council meetings have been disrupted and what you're doing to clamp down on that.

Mayor Joseph Petty: Sure. Back at the end of January, the council’s vice chair Khyrstian King was chairing a committee meeting and people called in with antisemitic and racist remarks. I thought Khrystian King did a good job handling that and explaining it to the public. Then the last meeting that I was chairing, people did call in and started going down the antisemitic road. Then, when I asked them to wrap it up, they used the N-word, so we closed that down. I did notice at that meeting that people were calling in under names that were well-known in the community that weren’t their own names. The names of a couple members of the press are what they used. I managed to stop a few other people who were not identifying themselves properly to cut them off and not be able to speak.

So we put in place a procedure where if you’re calling on Zoom, we'd like to see you live. You need to show your picture when you're speaking. Or, if you're calling in by phone, we’d like to see all ten digits of the phone number. We're going to let you speak as long as you can identify yourself.

What I don't want to do is prevent people from feeling that they can’t call in. I don't want to prevent that at all, I think it's important to democracy. I believe in free speech. At the same time, balancing it out so that people feel comfortable enough that they can show up in person or be on the phone or on Zoom without being criticized or put in a place where people are trying to make other people uncomfortable.

There's no room for hate in a city council meeting, whether it be antisemitic, whether it be racist, whether it be homophobic. We've worked very hard in this city over the last several years to make everybody comfortable. This is everybody's home and we're not going to let a few people who are not from here disrupt our community.

Rath: So the way you're addressing this is not so much to bring the gates down, but just to make sure that people who are calling in are who they say they are?

Petty: Correct. We're not going to close it off for now, and we'll see if this works. I'm sure some of these people are very well-equipped and will probably try to get around identifying themselves. I've asked the city clerk and city manager to look into technology, whether it be a ten-second delay or other technological advancements so that we can try to prevent this type of speech from occurring at city council meetings.

Rath: I guess the system was set up initially to be as open as possible. It must be kind of challenging to figure out all the ways that bad actors can get into it.

Petty: Oh, it is. After the first meeting, we looked at it, and we'll just take our time and we'll figure this out. We'll try to prevent people from disrupting our meetings. Worcester’s a great community. I don't want to prevent people from speaking. I think as long as I can explain myself and the council can explain itself to the public on why we're doing this, I think most people will appreciate it and partner with us, whether it be coming in on Zoom or by phone so we get the proper identification.

Rath: Do you have any sense of where these speakers are coming from? You said that it doesn't seem that they are actually local.

Petty: No, we don't believe so. I know they've sent hateful postcards twice and the return address and the stamp from the post office was out of California. Then we tried to look at the IP address, and that was out of the country, so somehow they're diverting where their real IP addresses is coming from.

They're smart enough not to break the law. I know when we had the first meeting they came in on back in January, I did talk to the chief of police, and he did report everything to this program called Infusion. I think it’s a state police program where they track all this nationally to make sure everybody's up to date and understands what's going on to make sure everybody’s protected here. They don't cross any lines or threaten people, so there's nothing law enforcement can do except just track this type of hate speech.

Rath: Wow. So these bad actors are being careful in how they act to stay on that side of the law?

Petty: Yeah, especially in their print material. They have gone a little bit over when they've called in using the N-word or antisemitic language. This lets us cut them off. I believe there are court cases that say people can speak their mind because of free speech, so I really can't shut them off unless they cross certain lines using vulgar language or language that's not appropriate. We give two minutes for people to speak, so once they get close to the two minute mark, we ask them to wrap it up.

Rath: Do we know why places like Worcester or Framingham are being targeted by these neo-Nazi groups?

Petty: I don't know the answer to that. I know we're a very welcoming city, I think we're recognized as that. We have a large Jewish community here in the city of Worcester, like other parts of the country too, and we work for the LGBTQ+ community. We’re also supportive of the transgender population here in the city, and also of the brown and Black communities here. We feel everybody is part this community, and maybe they know that from press releases. Unfortunately, hate comes from all different parts. I'm not sure if people are pointing to one another about certain communities in the state of Massachusetts or other parts of the country even.