Like many municipal bodies, the City and Borough of Juneau has been conducting business via public meetings hosted on Zoom. While this has helped to keep the wheels of government turning, it's also opened the door to Zoom bombing. Zoom bombing happens when an anonymous party joins the meeting and shares graphic or lewd content. City officials are considering an ordinance that makes it illegal to Zoom bomb a meeting hosted from Juneau. This screen grab from CBJ's website shows the city assembly meeting via Zoom. (Screenshot)

Potential ordinance seeks to curb lewd, obscene and threatening language in virtual meetings

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Meeting by Zoom has made it easier for businesses and governments to conduct business during COVID-19 restrictions. However, it’s also made it easier for nefarious actors to drop into the discussion and share graphic content and obscene messages. The practice, called Zoom bombing, has Juneau officials looking at options to stop it.

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly, which next meets March 1, is considering an ordinance that makes it a crime to Zoom bomb meetings in the city and borough.

The Human Resources Committee asked CBJ municipal attorney Robert Palmer to draft an ordinance making the act illegal in any Zoom meeting hosted from within Juneau. The assembly will consider the measure at a future meeting.

According to Palmer’s description to the Human Resources Committee, Zoom bombing is the term for joining a meeting anonymously and showing inappropriate images or making comments that are lewd, threatening, obscene, or disruptive and out of context.

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City officials said that since CBJ has been meeting via Zoom due to COVID-19-related restrictions, a several incidents have highlighted the need for this ordinance, including one in August 2020.

“During the public portion of the meeting, someone called in and made shocking comments,” said Assembly member Carole Triem, who was the chair of the meeting when the Zoom bomb occurred.

The comments were directed at her and fell into the lewd category.

“I was just totally in shock and thinking let’s get on with the meeting,” Triem said in a phone interview. “The next day, I felt terrible and embarrassed. They have no idea who did it. You can be so anonymous when you call in.”

According to Palmer, it’s challenging to find out who is behind Zoom bombing incidents.

“Zoom says that if it’s a local crime, they will look into it. They suggested that if the CBJ wants to stop this, it needs to be added to the criminal code. Options are harassment or disorderly contact,” Palmer said.

Palmer explained that the ordinance must be crafted in a way that protects first amendment freedoms of speech but prevents threats, obscenities, and disruptive contact.

“It’s a balancing act,” Palmer said.

“I’m glad we are doing this now,” Triem said. “Even if Zoom never cooperates, if we say this is not acceptable behavior and we won’t tolerate it, even if we can’t track people down, it’s still positive. There’s value in saying it’s not OK.”

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“It’s a shame that we have to have this discussion,” Triem said.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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