San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott. Photo by Chris Stone

The San Diego City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee voted Wednesday to repeal an antiquated seditious language law which has been disproportionately used in recent years to punish Black San Diegans.

San Diego Municipal Code section 56.30, labeled “Seditious Language – Prohibited,” makes it unlawful to use seditious language, or any words having a tendency to create a breach of the public peace, in the presence of other people.

Free speech advocates and local political leaders say that section of the code, which dates back more than 100 years, violates the First Amendment. The committee’s vote was unanimous, and the ordinance to repeal the municipal code section will now be brought before the full City Council for a vote.

San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott proposed the repeal of the law to the committee, and said her office has not prosecuted any cases citing it.

“Repealing this antiquated code section will protect the free speech rights of San Diego residents and visitors,” she said. “These rights have never been more important than they are right now.”

San Diego police have written 83 tickets citing the law since 2013, according to the nonprofit journalism organization Voice of San Diego. Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, the committee chair, said the law has been used disproportionately on Black people, who have been the recipients of eight of the 11 most recent tickets.

The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties issued a statement echoing Montgomery Steppe and fellow Councilwoman Vivian Moreno’s call to expunge the records and provide restitution to people who have been cited under the ordinance.

“Not only is the ordinance blatantly unconstitutional, the enforcement of the ordinance disproportionately punished Black San Diegans for exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Jonathan Markovitz, staff attorney for the ACLU. “We need to decriminalize behaviors that do not harm others and invest more city resources in non-law enforcement responses to reduce the role of police in Black and Latino communities.”

On July 15, 2019, a San Diego police officer used the code to write a ticket for Jawanza Watson, who was rapping a song with curse words in it while he walked to his co-worker’s car after work.

Sedition is defined as conduct or speech inciting insurrection toward the established order.

The law was passed in 1918, when a wave of similar laws were passed across the country and used to punish outspoken opponents of World War I and of the United States — including the Congressional Sedition Act.

Socialist leader and four-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was arrested in 1918 for encouraging his followers to resist a military draft in Ohio.

The Sedition Act was upheld in U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Schenck v. United States and Abrams v. United States before ultimately being repealed by Congress in 1920.

President Woodrow Wilson did reduce the sentences of some 200 people imprisoned under sedition laws after the war. However, many people, including dozens of miners and labor leaders imprisoned under the Montana Sedition Act, were locked up for more than 20 years after the war ended after allegedly expressing pro-German sentiments.

Updated at 4:39 p.m. Sept. 9, 2020

— City News Service

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