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City Council Repeals 102-Year-Old Sedition Law Used To Punish Speech

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott sits at the dais, Dec. 12, 2016.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott sits at the dais, Dec. 12, 2016.

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San Diego City Council voted to repeal an antiquated seditious language law that has been disproportionately used in recent years to punish Black San Diegans.

Aired: October 1, 2020 | Transcript

The San Diego City Council voted Wednesday to repeal an antiquated seditious language law that has been disproportionately used in recent years to punish Black San Diegans.

San Diego Municipal Code section 56.30, labeled "Seditious Language - Prohibited," made 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. Sedition is defined as conduct or speech inciting insurrection toward the established order.

Free speech advocates and local political leaders have said that section of the code, which dates back more than 100 years, violates the First Amendment. The council's vote was unanimous, with Councilman Chris Cate absent.

Even with the overwhelming support to repeal the law, some council members said the fact this law was on the books for so long was something worth investigating.

"We need to investigate why police officers were trained to cite people under this law," Councilwoman Vivian Moreno said. "We need to right a wrong that has been committed against our residents."

Moreno, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe and the American Civil Liberties Union have called to expunge the records and provide restitution to people who have been cited under the ordinance.

San Diego police have written 83 tickets citing the law since 2013. Montgomery Steppe said the law has been used disproportionately on Black people, who have been the recipients of eight of the 11 most recent tickets.

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

"Protecting citizens' rights to peacefully protest and speak out against government has never been more important," Elliott said. "I commend the City Council for removing this antiquated code section from our municipal code and for upholding the free speech rights of San Diegans."

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.

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.

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