San Diego Police Officers Are Using An Old Sedition Law To Punish People For Swearing Around Cops

from the fuck-the-police-but-especially-these-guys dept

It's pretty well established that offensive hand gestures are covered by the First Amendment, even when it's a cop receiving the finger. This free speech has resulted in "contempt of cop" arrests and citations, but there hasn't been a federal court yet willing to recognize a police officer's "right" to remain unoffended. And if the First Amendment is violated by cops in retaliation for flipping the bird, there's going to be some Fourth Amendment violations as well.

Somehow the Constitution hasn't gotten around to removing a terrible law from the books in San Diego, California. In this city, it's still a criminal act to say rude things within hearing distance of a cop. (It's actually illegal if anyone can overhear it, but only police officers have the power to turn something mildly offensive into a criminal citation.)

On the morning of July 15, 2019, Jawanza Watson and a coworker were walking to the coworker’s car after finishing their shifts at Firehouse Bar in downtown San Diego. It was close to 2 a.m.

“I was drunk, you know. I was having a good time. I know that I was feeling myself,” Watson, who now lives in Minneapolis, told VOSD. “And I was rapping a song, but it had cursing in it.”

Watson remembers a police car rolling up slowly beside him and his coworker, windows down. An officer got out and stopped Watson, he said, claiming that the lyrics he’d been singing had been directed at the police.

[...]

The officer wound up giving Watson a ticket for violating section 56.30 of the city code, which reads: “(It) is declared to be unlawful for any person within the said City of San Diego to utter or use within the hearing of one or more persons any seditious language, words or epithets.”

Yes, this law -- which has been in effect since 1918 (the same year the federal government passed its Sedition Act, which led directly to the "fire in a crowded theater" trope) -- is still being used by cops in San Diego to punish people for saying things the cops don't like.

The enforcement of this law appears to be an SDPD crime of opportunity. Records obtained by the Voice of San Diego show the PD has handed out "seditious language" citations 83 times since 2013. The only records containing any information about citizens cited show that 8 of 11 recipients of seditious language tickets in 2018 were Black.

Is it seditious to sing rap lyrics out loud? Is it seditious to direct those lyrics at a cop, as was claimed by the officer citing Jawanza Watson? Of course not. It can only be criminal if it's linked to an "imminent crime" against the government. Being drunk and boisterous in public can be its own criminal violation, but rapping out loud is just free speech. Unfortunately, no one in San Diego has raised a Constitutional challenge yet, allowing the outdated law to live on.

There's been no Constitutional challenge because the cops abusing the law are somewhat smart about it. They downgrade the charge to a criminal infraction, ensuring no misdemeanor paperwork will be filed and make its way to the prosecutor's office. Anything along those lines might result in someone lawyering up and getting this tool of official harassment struck down. Local prosecutors seemed to be about as surprised by the law's existence as the recipients of these tickets.

Hilary Nemchik, a spokeswoman for the San Diego city attorney’s office, which prosecutes misdemeanors, said her office hadn’t been aware police were enforcing a section of the municipal code prohibiting seditious language. She called it “antiquated” and said deputy city attorneys would not prosecute anyone for it.

It's not just one cop's personal toy. The tickets examined by VOSD showed nine different officers had issued seditious language citations in 2018. This includes one citation that sounds like the SDPD considers itself more of a KGB.

Each of the 11 most recent seditious language tickets were written in downtown San Diego — except one, which the defendant received in his own home in southeastern San Diego.

There are a lot of things that define America and swearing in your own home without fear of retaliation from the government is one of them. But not when the SDPD is running things. The law, which was supposed to protect the government from being overthrown, is being used to inflict monetary pain on people who say things cops don't like.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: cursing, free speech, offensive speech, police, protests, san diego, san diego police, sedition


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 11:55am

    The law, which was supposed to protect the government from being overthrown, is being used to inflict monetary pain on people who say things cops don't like.

    Sounds like it's being used exactly as designed actually, that being punishing anyone uppity enough to speak out against their 'betters'.

    Ah the goons in blue, never passing up an opportunity to show just how pathetic and petty some people get when given even the slightest bit of power, and were it not for the fact that I'm sure it's just a complete coincidence that the majority of people charged according to the records were black I'd chalk this up to a sterling example of rampant racism as well.

    The law itself never should have been passed as a pretty blatant violation of the first amendment(adding to the humor pretty sure it would have made the founding fathers criminals as well...), but with it being abused/used as designed it seems like a perfect time to kill it and remove yet another tool the police are apparently gleefully using to harass people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 1:52pm

      Re:

      Given that the US Supreme Court has ruled that such language is constitutionally-protected speech and expression, if anyone is engaging in sedition against the government it's the police officers who are directly violating the rulings of the highest court!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:05pm

    Make it happen, it will be fun to watch

    What happens if one doesn't pay the fine imposed by the ticket? Things escalate. At some point they either drop the charges or it goes to court. I realize this would be time consuming and expensive, but if just one ticket receiver was willing, and there was assistance from some kindly lawyers (the ACLU doesn't seem to stand for much other than wokeness these days) willing to go the distance, the Constitutional challenge could be produced.

    Any likely candidates who live in San Diego might go practice their George Carlin 7 words you can't say on TV imitation near some police officers to get the ball rolling. Any San Diego lawyers up for a good Constitutional challenge?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:34pm

      Re: Make it happen, it will be fun to watch

      the ACLU doesn't seem to stand for much other than wokeness these days

      Huh?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      David, 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:50pm

      Re: Make it happen, it will be fun to watch

      What happens if one doesn't pay the fine imposed by the ticket? Things escalate. At some point they either drop the charges or it goes to court.

      See, here is your mistake. You think "things escalate" revolves around the original citation. But you continue living in the town, and the cops continue patrolling in the town. You'll continue meeting in different contexts.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 11 Aug 2020 @ 1:12am

        Re: Re: Make it happen, it will be fun to watch

        "But you continue living in the town, and the cops continue patrolling in the town. You'll continue meeting in different contexts."

        It IS a bit like someone thinking they got one over on the school bully and not realizing until later that said bully will still be around come recess, meaning we all know who the bully will be singling out for extorting lunch money from, for the rest of the year.

        If the police department have already proven willing to be unreasonable in their quest of receiving unearned respect what makes anyone think they'll quietly back down to the rebellious <fill in ethnic slur here> who refused to get with the program?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Coyne Tibbets (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 5:21pm

      Re: Make it happen, it will be fun to watch

      So ACLU won't grind our axe/bang our drum and there oughta be a Law forcing them to treat every idea I like as if it were the best idea ever?

      So, if Facebook/Twitter/ACLU are to be forced to support every white supremacist ideal...why shouldn't I expect, say, American Family Association to present every pro-choice argument I might want to make?

      If your answer is, "Organizations must only be forced to support ideas I like...," then you are don't really support free speech, your argument is bankrupt.

      ...or you could admit that PRIVATE persons and organizations should be entitled to walk away from ideas they don't support. In which case, Facebook, Twitter and ACLU are merely exercising their rights.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2020 @ 5:22am

        Re: Re: Make it happen, it will be fun to watch

        I think his point is more that the ACLU is soliciting donations on false pretences by shifting its position on fairly important issues without drawing attention to that.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    aerinai (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:25pm

    Those types of petty 'discretionary' rules definitely lend themselves to be abused...

    I'm not saying get rid of discretion, but getting rid of rules that are so easy to oppress a group of people the officer may be biased towards (e.g. different race, different sex, etc), would be a good and SIMPLE start to police reform.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:32pm

      Re:

      Nah, just nuke them from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Aug 2020 @ 5:24am

      Re:

      IMO we should get rid of discretion: the legislature should codify the situations where prosecution is not in the public interstate's and specially exempt those cases from the law.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:38pm

    Apparently none of the 83 "seditious language" citations issued since 2013 has actually been prosecuted in court.

    These tickets are meaningless harassment unless the SanDiego City Attorney actively chooses to prosecute them.
    The cops have no legal power on this unless the City Attorney backs them up.

    The San Diego Police Chief, City Attorney and Mayor are the real villains here -- they could very easily stop all this, as an internal city administrative matter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Aug 2020 @ 4:43pm

      Re: By no means meaningless harassment.

      By downgrading them to misdemeanors, they still get "prosecuted" - If you don't show up, don't challenge them and get them thrown out, they'll be rendered against you.

      In most of the 11 cases VOSD reviewed in the court files, however, defendants failed to show up to their hearing. They therefore received an additional $300 fine. Typically, if the debt goes unpaid, the court turns it over a collections agency.

      Even if the sedition charge is dropped, you still have the 'no-show' fine. So you have a choice: miss a day of work, or eat a fine. And like copyright trolling, the fines involved are much smaller than the cost of breaking the law in court.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 12:50pm

    A law to protect the government from being overthrown

    Laws to protect the government from being overthrown are downright craven for a system that presumes the population will be adult and civically engaged.

    One might think the whole system was never made in good faith in the first place. But then: slaves, limited rights for women and children etc.

    More and more, American Exceptionalism is revealing to be a curtain to hide the built-in degeneracy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 1:03pm

      Re: A law to protect the government from being overthrown

      "Laws to protect the government from being overthrown are downright craven for a system that presumes the population will be adult and civically engaged."

      Then there's the whole 'government of the people by the people' thingy. Do they overthrow themselves or their elected officials (which someone might argue happens every time one doesn't get reelected, or Trump in mid November) or just the bureaucrats?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 10 Aug 2020 @ 2:14pm

      Only one overthrown goverment per country

      Laws to protect the government from being overthrown are downright craven for a system that presumes the population will be adult and civically engaged.

      It's also delightfully hypocritical when you consider how the US was founded.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bobvious, 10 Aug 2020 @ 2:22pm

    At least it wasn't several seditious scribes

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    thomasruby11 (profile), 11 Aug 2020 @ 12:40am

    Golden Corral Survey 2020

    goldencorral-listens is the official portal that allows customers to win $1ooo cash in Golden Corral Rewards. Yes, Golden Corral Customer Satisfaction Survey offers a chance to win $1000 daily in return for sharing your feedback.
    https://surveyfeedback.onl/golden-corral-listens/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.