City Council Celebrates 100 Years of Free Speech in San Diego

SAN DIEGO – Expressing “dismay” at actions taken by its counterparts one hundred years ago to “ban any type of free speech or assembly” anywhere in the downtown area, San Diego City Councilmembers unanimously passed a proclamation today repudiating that undemocratic ordinance and celebrating free speech and association as fundamental tenets of our democratic republic.

At the behest of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, Councilmembers Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria asked the Council to support a proclamation titled, “100 Year Celebration of Free Speech” at the council’s meeting today.

This year, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight, one of the most momentous events in the city’s history. Throughout the winter and spring of 1912, labor and community activists, led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), engaged in a pitched battle against a city ordinance, No. 4623, which banned public speaking in a 49-block area radiating from the Gaslamp District.

“All labor and civil rights activists are grateful that our modern-day councilmembers recognize these most fundamental of American freedoms,” said Lorena Gonzalez, Secretary-Treasurer/CEO of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. “The sacrifice and courage of our union precursors secured free speech rights here in San Diego. We need to be vigilant in the protection of these rights or we can certainly lose them.”

“While many may take our freedoms for granted today, they exist because of the sweat, blood and very lives of these true American heroes,” said Paola Guzman, executive projects associate of the San Diego ACLU. “Our civil rights ancestors made free speech protections real, where they had previously just been pretty words on a piece of paper.”

“The response of San Diego’s elite to regular, working class people standing atop soap boxes to speak their minds to their fellow citizens was disproportionate, brutal, and caused one of the most brutal free speech fights in the history of the progressive era,” said Jim Miller, an English professor at San Diego City College. “There were a lot of heroic acts in defense of free speech. Unfortunately, there are a lot of parallels today.”

Throughout those winter months, many protesters were arrested, beaten, kidnapped and even killed for asserting their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly. Because of the vehemence and outsized response of San Diego city officials and law enforcement, the battle became a national cause, bringing thousands of people flooding into San Diego to defy the ban.

Ordinance 4623 read, in part:

It shall be unlawful for any person to address any assemblage, meeting or gathering of persons or hold or conduct any public meeting or make or deliver any public speech, lecture or discourse or sing any song or songs or take part in any public debate or discussion in or upon any public street or alley within that certain district in the City of San Diego…

Many challenged the unconstitutional ordinance, confronting the police who targeted soap-box activists, fighting for their right to protest. They were met with swift reprisals, including violence perpetrated by both police and unbridled vigilantes. Protesters were beaten, kidnapped, tortured, held in jail for up to six months without trial, and, in the case of “the physician to the poor,” Dr. Ben Reitman, tarred and feathered and forced to flee town with his companion, nationally known writer and lecturer, Emma Goldman.

The ordinance was eventually overturned in 1915. “Today, each of us enjoys the right to assemble, protest, and speak in public, thanks to the Free Speech League and all those who fought for our First Amendment rights before they were recognized by the courts and our local and national governments,” said Gonzalez.

A commemoration at the site of the springboard for the protests takes place tomorrow, Wednesday, February 8, beginning at 6:00 p.m. at the corner of 5th Avenue and E Streets in downtown San Diego. There will be music, performances, re-enactments and special guests, including Lorena Gonzalez, Kevin Keenan, executive director of the San Diego ACLU, and Rainey Reitman, the granddaughter of Dr. Reitman. For more information, contact Patrick Pierce at 619-228-8101.

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