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San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit and City Attorney Mara Elliott / Photos by Adriana Heldiz and Megan Wood

San Diego Police Chief Dave Nisleit has instructed officers to stop enforcing a century-old law that forbids “seditious language” as elected officials begin the process of repealing it.

Earlier this month, VOSD reported that police since 2013 had issued at least 82 tickets for what’s generally understood as speech advocating to overthrow the government.

San Diego Municipal Code 56.30, approved in 1918, forbids anybody within city limits from uttering, within earshot of another person, “any seditious language, words or epithets.”

One legal expert said the law was highly unconstitutional and questioned whether cops weren’t simply punishing people who’d offended them personally. One man said he was cited for singing rap lyrics.

When elected officials first proposed the law at the height of World War I, the mayor warned it would be used to spite one another.

Because the tickets were filed in recent years as infractions rather than misdemeanors, the process has played out administratively, not criminally. On par with speeding tickets, infractions don’t entitle defendants to legal counsel or a trial by jury. Lawyers for both the city and the public defender said they were unaware that SDPD was still enforcing that section of the municipal code.

In the meantime, the city attorney’s office is preparing a new ordinance to repeal the seditious language law at the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee on Sept. 9, said spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik.

The repeal ordinance, if it passes the committee, will then go before the entire City Council for a vote.

In an email, Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesman, said police are “working with the San Diego city attorney’s office to have this portion of the municipal code removed given it is outdated.”

Past Attempts to Ban the Seditious Language Ban

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to rid San Diego of its seditious language law.

After VOSD’s story published, the city attorney’s office went back through its records and found past discussions about an attempt to repeal that section of the municipal code. But the discussions ended when Jan Goldsmith took over as city attorney in 2008, Nemchik said.

Goldsmith and Aguirre both said they had no recollection of any attempts to repeal the law.

The issue resurfaced in May 2019, when a member of the Community Review Board on Police Practices, the watchdog group that investigates the San Diego Police Department, brought the law to the group’s attention. According to the meeting minutes, the board concluded that the law was likely outdated.

The board voted unanimously to send the city attorney’s office a letter and recommend that the municipal code be updated or rescinded. But Nemchik said the board didn’t send the letter until Aug. 7, 2020, four days after VOSD’s story ran.

Community Review Board members could not be reached for comment.

Notably, two SDPD officers were in attendance at that May 2019 meeting. One, Cpt. John “Wes” Morris, served as the head of the police professional standards unit. He is currently in charge of the police training unit.

A Closer Look at the Tickets

Since the story revealing SDPD’s continued use of the law published, VOSD has received a dataset with more information about each ticket, and it reveals that at least three people over the last seven years have received more than one seditious language ticket. One 41-year-old man was ticketed in 2013 and 2016 by different police officers.

In total, 54 different police officers ticketed people for seditious language between July 2013 and the beginning of this month. One police officer issued a ticket to the same individual on five separate occasions.

The data also reveals that in October 2013, a police officer issued a seditious language ticket to a 14-year-old Hispanic boy for reasons that are still unclear.

He was the only person under 18 to receive the ticket. Nearly half of the citations went to people between 19 and 28 years old.

Police issued 21 seditious language tickets in Pacific Beach, the most of any neighborhood; Ocean Beach also looms large, with 18. Beyond that, seditious language tickets have been fairly well spread out across the city, from Bay Terraces to Rancho Peñasquitos.

Court records I pulled last month showed that eight of the 11 most recent tickets were issued to Black San Diegans.

The new dataset includes additional information about the demographics. Black San Diegans are still disproportionately represented; they make up 30 percent of seditious language tickets since 2013 while accounting for about 6.5 percent of the city’s population. White San Diegans, overall, received 48 percent of the tickets and represent about 43 percent of the city’s population.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified the number of individuals ticketed by a single officer. That officer ticketed five individuals on separate occasions. 

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