San Diego police were recently caught exploiting a 102 year old rule against sedition to censor free speech, issuing tickets to people who were cursing in their presence. While the city council repealed the sedition law back in September, The Voice of San Diego has found more disturbing information about the police officers who issued these tickets, discovering that half of them have been accused of other civil rights violations as well.
Censoring Free Speech
For 102 years, San Diego had a “seditious language” law on the books, making it illegal to “utter or use within the hearing of one or more persons any seditious language, words or epithets.” The law, like many other issued across the US, was put in place to silence critics of WWI, but while it was never repealed, it was largely considered to be unconstitutional as the Supreme Court has held that seditious language must involve an imminent crime against the government.
But for the 83 San Diegians issued tickets for the crime since 2013, there is no question that the “offensive language” held no threat to the government and was protected free speech. That didn’t stop the police who wrote these tickets though. Fortunately, the story was made public in the news in August and the law was repealed in September.
One Rights Violation Leads to Another
The fact is that most people, including police, should be able to recognize the fact that using foul language may be in bad taste, but is certainly not a crime. So it’s not entirely surprising that of the 54 officers who wrote these tickets in an effort to chill free speech were more likely than the average police officer to violate civil rights in other ways. In fact, an investigation by The Voice of San Diego discovered that half of the SDPD officers who wrote more than one of these tickets was accused of other rights violations, including harassment of innocent people, warrantless searches and the arrest of peaceful protesters. One third of these officers were also involved in shootings.
None of the officers had been convicted of a crime or found to have committed misconduct. That being said, the way these officers attempted to violate the free speech of civilians should be taken as a red flag that they could potentially commit other, more serious rights violations.
The Problem With Low-Key Rights Violations
One of the reasons police were able to write tickets for seditious language was because the tickets are only citations, meaning they aren’t reviewed by the city attorney or public defenders and would be unlikely to be noticed by the officer’s supervisors. This allowed civil rights violations to go on for years whereas these problems would have been stopped if the District Attorney had been aware of them.
The fact that these officers were able to issue these tickets without notice for such a long period indicates that there needs to be greater oversight of the SDPD as the current system provided no way for those in charge to notice these rights violations. Experts are hoping that the new Commission on Police Practices instituted by Measure B in the recent election will allow for these types of matters to be investigated by an outside agency, rather than internal affairs. Not only is independent oversight of police necessary, but it must be followed with prosecution of bad officers, which has traditionally been very difficult, but with new reforms it will hopefully become a more common occurrence.
If you believe your rights were violated during an arrest, it’s important to mention this fact to your defense attorney. Peter M. Liss can help anyone who has been charged with a crime. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.