LENOX — Ten weeks after I vented about a racist Zoom bombing at a West Stockbridge Select Board meeting, comes another electronic invasion.
This time, as reported by The Eagle’s Heather Bellow, three criminals attacked the Nov. 18 Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee meeting, this time with visual pornography. I’ll spare you a repeat of the repulsive details, but what occurred appears to fit the legal definition of public indecency, a serious crime that carries potential jail time upon conviction.
Since the school district’s administrative headquarters is in the Stockbridge Town Offices building, police in that town are pursuing an active investigation with some leads developed, according to Chief Darrell Fennelly. If needed, there will be collaboration with state police detectives attached to the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office. The police complaint was filed by Rich Frederick, executive director of CTSB (Community Television for the Southern Berkshires), which hosted the videoconference on Zoom and Facebook Live.
Transparency and maximum public participation in town and city meetings are at the heart of New England’s Rockwellian brand of grassroots democracy. It’s time to offer some guidelines aimed at minimizing any further “bombings” by online trolls while hybrid in-person and electronic formats continue, as well they should.
• Leaders of select board, school committee, city council and other public meetings need to allow public participation while guarding against remote abuse of the type we’ve seen several times in recent months not only here in the Berkshires, but also in Washington state, central California and DeKalb County, Ga. It’s vital to hold in-person meetings, with maximum COVID safety precautions such as masking. But, either via local public access cable channels, Zoom, YouTube or Facebook Live, the public also deserves the option to witness the meetings from home for the foreseeable future, if more prudent and convenient.
• Our state’s Open Meeting Law, issued by the state Attorney General’s Office, encourages public participation. But it also gives the chair of the meeting full authority and discretion to set and enforce ground rules for public comment, including time limits and constraints to prevent any speakers from monopolizing the discussion.
As the law states, “an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chair. An individual may not disrupt a meeting of a public body, and at the request of the chair, all members of the public shall be silent.” Furthermore, disruptive people can be removed from an in-person meeting, the 2018 updated law points out. Presumably, the same should apply to electronic disrupters.
• As for remote electronic participation, the “host” of a Zoom meeting needs to ride herd on the discussion in order to reduce opportunities for rogues to threaten potential violence, as occurred in West Stockbridge last summer, or to engage in gross sexual activity, as in last week’s Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting.
• Some towns and school committees have adopted the “webinar” Zoom format, which gives chairpeople more control and limits screen sharing to participants invited by the host. The Great Barrington Select Board and the Lenox School Committee are among other public meeting forums that have successfully adopted this more restrictive, yet safer procedure.
Each community and school committee has to make its own decision, of course. But, given the incivility (and worse) gripping our public discourse nationally, the evidence is overwhelming that Berkshire County is no oasis of tranquility and common-sense precautions are vital. Even though webinars don’t allow members of the public to see who else is watching or to engage in group chat, that’s a small price to pay for enhanced security.
Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has put out a useful guide to prevent Zoom bombing incidents. The recommendations include:
• Limit whom you invite: Webinars give the presenter control over who can participate with video, audio, chat and screen sharing.
• Allow only logged-in users to join: Identified visitors with an e-mail address (“authenticated users”) can attend; no one can join anonymously.
• Monitor who attends the meeting: For greater security, the host can create a “waiting room” and recognize speakers one by one.
While those protections could be viewed as limiting public participation, the ideal setup is to enhance and maximize online security for hybrid meetings, since members of the public can attend those in person, just like in the Before Times. Cowards who intend to disrupt a public meeting are less likely to show up in person, since anonymity is their calling card.
Restricting public participation is an unfortunate necessity that’s contrary to the ideal of free public expression. But it’s a consequence of the fraught world we live in, and should be endured until such time that vicious attacks against civic gatherings cease to undermine and sabotage our First Amendment rights.