A former Grover Beach mayor is being accused of hate speech after he asked the City Council “Are you whores?” during a debate on marijuana businesses.
Ron Arnoldsen, who served on the council from 1992 to 2004 as both a councilman and mayor, spoke during public comment on the contentious topic of whether the city should allow medical marijuana businesses to operate in Grover Beach.
In his brief comments on May 15, which came after several other members of the public spoke against the ordinance, Arnoldsen said he grew up in a small town in Nevada, where two “houses of ill-repute” had “ladies (who) would do anything for money.”
“Now I live in a little community on the Central Coast of California, and I’m told that the City Council will do anything for money,” he said. “Are you whores?”
The comment didn’t sit well with Councilwoman Mariam Shah — one of three women on the council — who said she believes it is an example of hate speech and derogatory language used against women.
“This kind of language can persist, and you know it’s been said to me, it’s been said about me,” Shah said. “I don’t even care anymore. I’m 40 years old. But I have an 8-year-old daughter, and now I think about, if I don’t say something, they are going to be saying it to her. And that’s what made me feel like I can’t just let it go.”
Hate speech is commonly defined as speech that attacks a person or group for attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender.
Arnoldsen did not respond to repeated phone calls and email requests for clarifications on his comment, but he did provide an opinion piece to Cal Coast News.
There, he asserted that his comments weren’t directed singularly at the women on the council, and instead said that he thought the council was putting potential financial gain above the concerns of the community in regard to the pot debate.
“I am not opposed to medical marijuana or even the recreational use of it. I am opposed to many of the specifics of the ordinance Grover Beach has drafted,” he wrote. “I would have preferred they ‘went gently into the night’ with concerns to a marijuana ordinance. That is why I ask, are they greedy whores? Trying to be the first to grab the largest share of the industry.”
The city’s rules for meeting behavior don’t specifically prohibit the use of taboo or offensive language in public comment.
According to its Policies and Procedures for Conduct and Decorum at Council Meetings, members of the public can be removed from a meeting if they are “making personal, impertinent and slanderous or profane remarks or who becomes boisterous while addressing the City Council staff or general public” and refuse to stop when asked by the mayor or presiding officer. But in general, most language, even hate speech, is legally protected and allowed under the First Amendment.
Shah said she recognized that Arnoldsen had a right to say whatever he wished during his public comment but hoped that by speaking out against the use of the word “whore” now, she could help eradicate its use in the future.
“I think our community for the most part is past this, and that’s why it was just so shocking,” she said. “No, you can’t get comfortable, just because people have voted for women and it looks equal. There are still these things that exist. We just have to keep pointing them out until they are gone.”
Councilwoman Debbie Peterson had a different opinion: She said she didn’t find the comment offensive and was concerned that a council member admonishing a member of the public for their choice of words was inappropriate and could stifle public debate.
“The point of spirited discourse is discussion of the issues,” she said. “The issue raised here is the concern that the council is selling out and will do anything for money. Let’s discuss that concern, not the delivery. Making it about delivery redirects the conversation, rather than dealing with a very serious concern that he took the time to come to a meeting to voice publicly.”
Councilman Jeff Lee, on the other hand, said he did feel Arnoldsen’s word choice was “uncalled for.”
“I fully support the women of the Grover Beach council and the good work that we do together, especially in crafting language around a sensitive subject like medical marijuana,” he said. “As a supporter of the RISE organization and their vision statement — Respect, Inspire, Support and Empower — I will continue to live by these values with an added element that I will respond if (and hopefully not when) a similar situation occurs in the future.”