UPDATE, Aug. 23, 5 p.m.:

In response to an Outpost question asking which specific comments County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes interpreted as a violent threat, the county issued the following statement, attributed to Hayes:

Again, I will not repeat his specific comments, but your story yesterday made the same connection we made to potential violence. And judging by the reaction and clear change in peoples’ behavior in the crowd when the comments turned to shooting people, it appeared that others in the chamber made that connection as well. I will also say that the term “hate speech” was used yesterday to reference the statements that were perceived to potentially elicit a violent response towards others, and particularly towards vulnerable populations.


Frequent public commenter Charles Wilson speaking last month at a Eureka City Council meeting, during which he argued (facetiously, we hope) that because the county flew a Pride flag outside the county courthouse in June, it should also fly this flag of his own choosing. | Screenshot.


A public commenter made some outrageous and bigoted comments during Tuesday’s meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, comments that were offensive enough to earn a rebuke from Chair and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone and, shortly thereafter, an all-staff email from the county administrative officer.

“Charles, this is — this is crossing over into hate speech, and it’s inappropriate and not allowed,” Madrone said, cutting the man off before he’d used his allotted three minutes of speaking time. 

The man speaking (via Zoom) was Charles Wilson, an eccentric old man who, with his wife, Genevieve, spouted bizarre anti-vax conspiracy theories at local public meetings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and who has since pivoted to expressing anti-transgender sentiments.

We won’t reproduce his full comments here, but suffice to say he referred to the LGBTQ+ community as “the alphabet people” and alleged that by flying the Pride flag outside the courthouse in June, the county was expressing support for “child mutilation and the elimination of women’s right to privacy and security.”

Wilson also referred to a flag design that he takes to weekly protests outside the county courthouse. (He recently displayed it for the camera at a Eureka City Council meeting, as seen in the photo above.)

Madrone later addressed his reasoning for cutting Wilson off mid-speech, speaking generally to meeting attendees and online viewers:

And just to be clear, when you cross over into hate speech against individuals or groups, that is simply not allowed. Yes, freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, but it requires respect of each other and not making personal attacks against individuals or groups that cross over into the hate speech category. So that is why I stopped the commenter.

According to David Loy, legal director for the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, Madrone’s interpretation of free speech is flawed.

“There is no so-called ‘hate speech’ exception to the First Amendment,” Loy said when reached by phone this afternoon. “The First Amendment does not allow the government to silence or censor speech, certainly, because of its viewpoint, even if some people might find that speech hateful.”

That’s not to condone the comments Wilson made, Loy said. He explained that Madrone would have been well within his own free speech rights to express strong disagreement with Wilson’s remarks, or to say the county does not approve of such discrimination.

“But the First Amendment does not allow the government — or the presiding member of the board — to cut someone off and deprive them of their time at the podium simply because they don’t like what the person is saying or disagree with it or find it hateful,” Loy said. “It may be hateful, but that’s not an exception to the First Amendment.”

There is ample case law underpinning that principle, Loy said, pointing to the Supreme Court’s decision upholding of citizens’ right to burn the American flag and the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to host hate-spewing anti-gay demonstrations at military and other high-profile funerals. 

Addressing a similar incident at a recent Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting — where a county resident deployed the n-word — Loy told news website Shasta Scout that before removing someone from a public meeting, a board chair must first warn the individual and give them an opportunity to stop disrupting the meeting. 

During the lunch break for today’s Board of Supervisors meeting, County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes issued an all-staff email addressing this morning’s incident. 

“At the Board of Supervisor’s [sic] meeting today a public commenter was evoking [sic] their 1st Amendment right, and it went too far,” Hayes wrote. “The comments made crossed the line into hate speech, and Chair Madrone was immediately asked to cut the commenter off.” 

Hayes went on to say that she wanted to recognize the impacts that such speech has on county staff and the community. She referenced the county’s ongoing efforts to advance Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, led by Human Resources Director Zachary O’Hanen and Project Manager Jeremy Clark.

“I assure you that as long as we remain in these roles, we will not allow issues such as these to go unnoticed,” Hayes wrote. “We will continue to shine a light on harmful behaviors and will do everything we can to make sure that all county employees can come to work as their true and authentic selves.”

Such comments fall within Hayes’s own rights to free speech, just as the raising the Pride flag outside county buildings represents a protected expression of the county’s own viewpoint, according to Loy. 

“If the chair or the board disagree with what someone is saying or wish to disavow or condemn it, they’re free to do so once that person’s time at the podium is done,” Loy said.

However, Hayes’s all-staff email went on to say this:

“I hope members of our community realize that hate speech will not be tolerated in future meetings … .”

That, Loy reiterated, is going too far. 

“Again, this is not to approve or disapprove of any particular viewpoint,” he said, “but from a First Amendment standpoint, members of the public have their free speech right to state their viewpoint. And that viewpoint may be hateful to some — or many.”

Not all speech is allowed, of course. The American Library Association, which addresses censorship matters, notes on its website that while there’s no legal definition of “hate speech,” some comments do cross a line:

“Under current First Amendment jurisprudence, hate speech can only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group.” Evidently, Hayes believes Wilson’s comments crossed that line.

In response to emailed questions, she sent a statement saying that Wilson’s comments were cut off after she (Hayes) perceived a threat of violence. 

“[T]he commenter talked favorably about being able to shoot people who were disliked by the majority, and taken in context with the other comments he made, I perceived that to be a statement that could elicit a violent response towards certain populations within our own community … ,” Hayes wrote.

She appears to be referring, there, to the tail end of Wilson’s rambling comments, which bordered on incoherent. Before being cut off by Madrone, Wilson said this (or something very close to it): “Women have the right to not have a penis in the shower, and when I volunteered for the Army, I was told by the government that I had to shoot people that the government didn’t like.”

Is that what Hayes viewed as a threat? We don’t know for sure. Her emailed statement arrived at 5 p.m., the end of business hours for the county. We sent a reply asking exactly which portion of Wilson’s comments she viewed as a violent threat. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

In the meantime, here’s her full statement:

The Board of Supervisors values the Constitution and a person’s First Amendment Right to free speech. The Board also is required to conduct an orderly meeting, and the Board Chair is responsible for ensuring that a person’s right to speak do not infringe on the rights and the protections of others. While all members of our community have the right to free speech, it does have a very real impact on residents and staff, particularly when it veers into discussions of violence. At no point should threats of physical violence ever enter the arena of discussions around public policy, even during public comment. It was important to recognize that. 

Mr. Wilson’s comments were limited pursuant to Gov Code Section 54957.95, the Rules of the Humboldt Board of Supervisors, and the Board’s Meeting Disruption Response Guidelines. 

I will not repeat his full statement, but the commenter talked favorably about being able to shoot people who were disliked by the majority, and taken in context with the other comments he made I perceived that to be a statement that could elicit a violent response towards certain populations within our own community, and at that point I recommended the public comment be halted. In the future, public commenters will be warned prior to having their comment period limited in such fashion.

The county supports the right to free speech, and at the same time it will steadfastly support ensuring that residents are safe. Safe to be their authentic selves – in Board Chambers, in the workplace and in our community.


UPDATE, Aug. 23, 11 a.m.:

Here is video from yesterday’s meeting, cued up to Charles Wilson’s comments, which start at the 45:22 mark: