Kevin Keenan, Executive Director of San Diego ACLU, supports injunction against a teacher's free speech; the California Court of Appeal says the injunction was "exceedingly unconstitutional."
100 years ago, San Diego banned free speech
Matthew T. Hall
Feb. 8, 2012
On this date 100 years ago, the San Diego police arrested 41 people — 38 men and three women — for standing on a soapbox and addressing the crowd before them. They were intentionally violating a new law that prevented public speaking in the area.
It was an early clash in what’s hailed now as San Diego’s “free speech fight,” a conflict whose echoes continue reverberating amid disputes in recent months between the modern-day San Diego Police Department and Occupy San Diego protesters.
Wednesday at 6 p.m., labor leaders, academics and civil liberties activists plan to commemorate that night and that struggle by standing on soapboxes and speaking out about a range of subjects at the corner of 5th and E streets.
The intersection was once called Heller’s Corner and once known as the place where the Industrial Workers of the World would stand on soapboxes of their own to provoke and recruit those around them. The ban on such behavior wasn’t overturned until 1915.
On Feb. 8, 1912, the first night that city ordinance No. 4623 banned public speaking and singing in a 49-block section of downtown, street speakers figured they faced misdemeanor arrest, Rosalie Shanks wrote in a 1973 article in The Journal of San Diego History.
Instead, the group was prosecuted for a felony charge of conspiracy to break the law.
Last month, history nearly repeated itself. Four Occupy San Diego protesters arrested for chanting during Mayor Jerry Sanders’ State of the City were accused of that same felony — conspiracy to commit a crime. They were never charged with it, though.
Tuesday, with Occupy San Diego protestors in the audience, the City Council assailed its century-old predecessors’ ban on public speaking via a proclamation that expressed a “deep dismay” and a “repudiation” of the “shameful ordinance.”
“As we look back on our city’s past, we also are able to better reflect on where we are today and the commitment we need to make going forward to protect our free speech rights,” said Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who introduced the proclamation.
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial counties, said 100 years ago members of the I.W.W. faced “brutal repression” for speaking out.
“People don’t realize how paper thin the right to the freedom of speech was for much of this country’s history,” Keenan said. “It basically was not worth the paper it was printed on.”
Mike Garcia, one of the Occupy activists who was arrested for chanting during Sanders’ State of the City speech, opposed the council’s proclamation because “It has the audacity to assume that this fight is over by speaking in the past tense.”
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, one of the candidates seeking to replace the termed-out Sanders this year, did not file felony charges against Garcia and three others.
Instead, the City Attorney’s Office is considering misdemeanor charges of disturbing a public meeting. A spokesman said Wednesday the case is still under review.