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If it sounds old fashioned, it is: San Diego has a century-old law on the books prohibiting anyone from using “seditious language, words or epithets” within earshot of another person.
Municipal codes are often full of odd relics. But the San Diego Police Department is still enforcing this one.
Kate Nucci analyzed crime data and found that officers have been punishing people on the streets of San Diego for speech they don’t like. Since at least 2013, as far back as the records go, SDPD has written 83 tickets for seditious language.
Typically that’s defined as language aiming to overthrow the government. Many of the tickets Nucci reviewed at the courthouse, though, cited “profanity.”
A man who received one of these tickets said he was cited for singing rap lyrics while leaving his job at 2 a.m. downtown.
The legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties said the relevant section of the city’s municipal code banning this type of speech “seems to be highly unconstitutional.”
Lawyers have yet to reckon with the First Amendment implications of the code, however, because police are writing the tickets as infractions rather than misdemeanors. That means the offense goes to an administrative official, not a judge, and the public defender’s office and the city attorney’s office aren’t involved.
City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office called the tickets “antiquated.”
Speaking of which …
San Diego has tapped three outside law firms to investigate 101 Ash St., a downtown high-rise that city officials evacuated in January following asbestos violations. So far, only one of those reviews is public (we wrote about it last week and talked about it on the podcast).
NBC 7 got its hands on all three of the legal reviews, and after publishing a story last week detailing the failures of officials who brokered a deal that disproportionately benefited developers, Elliott’s office intervened.
In a letter to reporter Dorian Hargrove, a deputy city attorney said he was looking for the leaker and asked for Hargrove’s participation in that effort. If not, Hargrove could himself become a target of criminal investigation.
Elliott backtracked a few hours later. In a statement, she said the letter never should have been sent and her office wouldn’t prosecute a journalist or compel them to reveal sources. She gave no indication, however, as to whether the leak investigation itself was called off. Most likely not.
That’s because Elliott has a history of aggressively investigating the sources of leaked information, as Scott Lewis and Andrew Keatts wrote in the Politics Report. In 2018, an appellate court concluded that the city attorney’s office had broken the State Bar’s rules of professional conduct by breaching a suspect’s right to attorney-client privilege.
She also sponsored a bill in 2019 that would made it harder for members of the public, including reporters, to take public agencies to court over violations of the California Public Records Act.
The Morning Report was written by Jesse Marx, and edited by Sara Libby.