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In early 1918, a young man working on a road in La Jolla made the mistake of bad-mouthing his nation during wartime. The United States was rotten, he declared, and the German kaiser would soon rule the world. Somebody called the cops, and the 24-year-old was arrested on charges of sedition and thrown in jail.
Tough break for one Willie F. Mayer, who discovered – like many others – that the 1910s were a hard time to speak your mind in San Diego. First, city leaders banned free speech in a large chunk of downtown. Then, a few years later, they made public patriotism mandatory by forbidding anyone from criticizing the country.
This might all be ancient history except for one thing: It’s not.
As Voice of San Diego reported Monday, the San Diego Police Department has cited dozens of people in recent years for violating a 1918 city ordinance that prohibits “seditious language” – speaking out against the nation.
The law came to life in an era when the United States was rattled by wartime – we entered World War I in 1917 – and worried about radicals. San Diego, a small city at the southern edge of California, was especially suspicious of leftists as it watched the revolution in Mexico with alarm. And it wanted to be perfectly patriotic as its young men went to Europe to kill Germans on the battlefield.
The nation’s wartime crackdown on speech came from the top. President Woodrow Wilson, who’d go on to make history in San Diego, had promised to keep the nation out of war when he was re-elected in 1916. Then, as University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone puts it, “he changed his mind,” and we entered the Great War.
Some critics “didn’t see any reason to get into a war that had relatively nothing to do with America,” Stone said, “and others, particularly socialists, believed that this was basically a capitalist war, driven by those who were making a fortune by creating arms and munitions. They believed it had nothing to do with justice or democracy but was just making the rich richer.”
Wilson demanded a united country – First Amendment be damned – and he pushed for laws to ban “seditious” speech. Congress complied. In May 1918, it passed the Sedition Act, which said no one could “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States.”
San Diego, however, had already beat the nation to the punch.
A month earlier in 1918, the San Diego City Council had passed its own sedition act – a law banning “seditious language.” Anyone who violated the law would be subject to a fine of $100-$500 – the equivalent of $1,700-$8,500 today – or a jail term of up to 150 days.
The mayor at the time, a colorful character named Louis Wilde, vetoed the ordinance, saying he feared it would conflict with federal law and could be abused: “Personal spite, frameups, hotheads or political enemies could take advantage of innocent citizens or loyal subjects,” he warned. But hizzoner was no liberal activist. He also offered this helpful guidance to fellow San Diegans: “Keep your mouth shut, your powder dry and buy Liberty bonds.”
The City Council overrode the mayor’s veto and the ordinance became law immediately. But Willie F. Mayer, the unfortunate road worker in La Jolla, had been arrested earlier when the law wasn’t in place. Did authorities let him go? Nope. He was charged with vagrancy instead and sentenced to six months in jail.
San Diego liked to play hardball when it came to speaking out. The city had a sorry track record of cracking down on free speech. In 1912, the city declared a six-block area of downtown to be off limits to meeting, singing or lecturing, and what one historian called a “small-scale civil war” broke out as activists rushed to town to protest the ban on protesting. The ensuing free speech fight unleashed water-hose crowd control, vicious vigilantes and an abusive police chief.
While the local sedition law passed in 1918, San Diego didn’t warm to all wartime restrictions that year. In fact, voters rebelled in November when patriotic hysteria went too far.
That year, the San Diego school board demanded that teachers fill out questionnaires that seemed like loyalty oaths, and it fired 18 teachers while hinting that they might be German sympathizers. San Diego students went on strike, and voters took advantage of a newfound power – the recall – to boot the board members out of office.
Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, judges accepted the federal government’s crackdown on speech. “When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right,” the Supreme Court declared.
But the tide had already begun to shift by the time the Sedition Act was repealed in 1920 after the war was over. “The Supreme Court has dramatically changed how it looks at the First Amendment,” said Stone, the law professor. “It would never support anything like that today.”
San Diego’s own sedition law, however, persisted for a century. But perhaps not for long.
“It’s patently unconstitutional and a joke under current law,” Stone said. “The government cannot constitutionally punish someone for saying nasty things about the government or government officials unless it creates a clear and present danger of grave harm.”