The City of San Antonio v. the people of San Antonio 

The new parade ordinance, passed November 29, 2007, by the San Antonio City Council, allows the city to charge organizers for costs related to street marches that exceed $3,000. City attorneys and police maintain that the charges are for traffic control. Community activists argue that the ordinance invites viewpoint discrimination, since it lists six preferred groups that are exempt from all charges: the Diez y Seis Parade, the MLK March, Veterans Day Parade, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and two others linked to Fiesta Week.

Within days, 14 community organizations coalesced into the Free Speech Coalition. In conjunction with the International Women’s Day March Organizing Committee, the coalition filed a suit challenging the ordinance’s constitutionality. The day the suit was filed, two city councilwomen offered the International Women’s Day March the option of being added to the list of most-favored-marches. Graciela Sanchez, speaking on behalf of the organization and the coalition, refused.

“This is not just about International Women’s Day, but about all our community’s right to free speech,” Sanchez told the Current. “We could not, in good conscience, allow ourselves to be bought out at the expense of all the other groups that would have been left out in the cold.”

Amy Kastely, the lead attorney for the Free Speech Coalition and past lead attorney in the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s successful 2001 lawsuit against the city over its illegal defunding of the arts organization, adds: “The city behaves as if this issue can be compromised away by adding one or two more free marches. But the issue of free speech is not something that can be compromised; it is a Constitutional right.”

At the December 20, 2007, hearing on the Coalition’s request for an injunction preventing the new ordinance from going into effect, Assistant City Attorney Debbie Klein claimed that the selected groups have a unique “cultural value to the city, and had nothing to do with politics.”

Judge Xavier Rodriguez responded: “Dare I say it, but it seems like the old arts-funding case all over again.”

“How isn’t the city not getting involved in free-speech and civil-rights violations when it chooses to sponsor some groups rather than others?” the judge asked. “I’m still troubled by the picking and choosing of organizations.”

The coalition was represented by an all-woman team of lawyers and activists. The City’s team marched in as a veritable parade of 12 people — nine male and three female — including two bulky police officers fiddling with their miniature badges. They carted in boxes of documents that made the whole entourage resemble a Fiesta week float procession, minus the expensive costumes.

But the suit against the City promises to be quite expensive for San Antonio taxpayers, especially if the City loses. At the hearing, Klein
began back-pedaling by suggesting the City might eliminate the most-favored marches from the
ordinance.

Even before the City’s case began to unravel in court, community activist and co-founder of the MLK March T.C. Calvert publicly supported the Coalition lawsuit.

“What the city is trying to do is control the free-speech agenda in San Antonio,” Calvert told the Current. “That is why they co-opted the MLK and Chavez Marches. They want to hide the fact that they are trying to prevent us from marching against police brutality or against the war.”

UTSA Political Science Professor Melvin Laracey, who once served as a city attorney for Ann Arbor, Michigan, offered an insider’s assessment to the Current: “It is a modern-day poll tax. Southern governments used to charge people to vote to keep them from voting. Now the City of San Antonio is charging people for protesting, and the effect could be to keep them from protesting.”

Political Science professor Rodolfo Rosales, an Esperanza board member, adds: “As far as I can remember, not even during the most conservative era of the Good Government League `the all-white pro-business clique that controlled San Antonio politics from the 1950s-70s`, did the city ever try to curb free speech as it is doing with this ordinance.”

Even conservatives are baffled by the City’s actions. Radio talk-show host Ricky Ware of KTSA AM 550 extended an invitation to Kastely for an on-air interview January 4, 2007. Ware voiced concerns that are likely to be shared by all San Antonio residents when he asked, “What brought this on? Why did the city decide to do this? `...` It sounds to me that it would be unconstitutional.”

So what can San Antonio residents do to reassert their constitutional rights? For starters, you can contact your city council representative to express your concern about the unnecessary costs the city is incurring in the New Parade Ordinance lawsuit, a cost that is likely to compound.

You also can sign the petition to revoke the ordinance at esperanzacenter.org/freespeech.htm, which will automatically include you in the Free Speech Coalition. (Full disclosure: I joined!) Better yet, you can hit the streets in two months for the annual International Women’s Day March, which will be the first test of the new ordinance if it is not thrown out when Judge Rodriguez issues his ruling sometime before February 8. After all, the streets belong to all of us. •


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