Condemning Hate in Online Spaces

Dear Public Press community,

I need to tell you about an upsetting, hateful incident that occurred during a Public Press Live event we held as a Zoom webinar on Thursday, May 28. The Public Press takes this matter seriously, especially in light of the pain and grief expressed nationwide this week about the chronic mistreatment, disrespect and disregard for black lives.

A few minutes into our discussion with students about their experience with and perspectives on distance learning during the pandemic, one or more people flooded the text chat with horrific racist epithets directed at La’Jaya Smith, a recent graduate from San Francisco’s Life Learning Academy.

The Public Press condemns this kind of behavior and prohibits it on all platforms and venues under our control. As soon as we saw the disturbing comments, another staff member and I responded quickly to eject the attackers and suspended commenting for all participants. We did not know how to delete the offensive words from Zoom, so we added text to the chat box to push them out of view.

But our response wasn’t fast enough. La’Jaya told us later that she was crushed when she saw the torrent of vile, racist words and personal attacks directed at her. Initially, we did not know whether she had seen the chat during the event because she maintained a stunning level of grace, poise and composure as she continued to answer questions from our host and event participants — a response we appreciated since she was under no obligation to do so. No one should be expected to proceed as if nothing had happened when treated so offensively.

We have apologized to La’Jaya, and I want to do it again here: We are extremely sorry that you — a kind, thoughtful, strong young woman whom we invited to share a valuable perspective, someone who trusted us to provide a welcoming space for an engaging conversation — were attacked in such a vile way. I am sorry that we were not prepared to prevent such an attack from happening or to remove its traces faster when it did.

We had heard of these kinds of attacks — aka “Zoom bombing” — happening to other organizations. But after two months of hosting near weekly public events online, we had not experienced anything like this. We thought we had taken necessary precautions by requiring attendees to sign up to receive event links directly. Unfortunately, we made a mistake right before this event started: In trying to ensure that everyone who wanted to attend would be able to join the panel, we posted the event link on Twitter, where we now understand that trolls are constantly searching for Zoom links.

This attack came from the outside. But we at the San Francisco Public Press need to take responsibility and establish better safeguards to protect the community members we invite to collaborate with us. We have implemented new procedures for our live online events. In the future, attendees will not be able to see questions or comments from other attendees, nor will they be able to communicate directly with the host or panelists. We will assign a staff member who will serve as gatekeeper to receive all incoming questions and messages.

With La’Jaya’s encouragement, we are explaining what happened publicly so that people in our community can understand exactly how hate and racism continue to plague our society, and how such anonymous perpetrators sought to undermine the accomplishments, confidence and sense of security of a young African American woman.

If you have other recommendations or suggestions for how we can better support essential community conversations, we would like to hear from you.

Thank you for taking the time to acknowledge La’Jaya’s experience with us. We want to congratulate her on her high school graduation and wish her great success and happiness as she pursues higher education and entrepreneurship with her baking business, Jaya’s Sweets.


Lila LaHood, signature

Lila LaHood

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