Year in Review: Free speech fight

Kicking along a cracked and crumbling thoroughfare, one doesn’t typically glow with the pride of ownership one takes in a new home addition or waxed, speed-hungry cruiser in the drive. But that’s your cement-chip and asphalt stream you’re treading on. Your street. Your sidewalk. Your park.

These most public of public spaces have long served as gathering places for la gente to share chisme, exchange ideas, and — when the times require — throw up their voices and handmade signs in protest.

But ill-defined City policies that allow the San Antonio Police Department to set fees arbitrarily for public marches and demonstrations caught the City idling over First Amendment issues in federal court this past year.

In a 2007 lawsuit, members of the International Women’s Day March Planning Committee and the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition, a collection of 16 local organizations, charged that the City is given too much discretion when it comes to charging for Freedom of Assembly and Free Speech. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriquez found significant problems with the rule, put the new Parade Ordinance on hold, and allowed the case to proceed.

While the City redrafted its ordinance to alleviate the cost of traffic control for “marches of a political nature,” other encumbering fees mean Free Speech bills could still exceed tens of thousands of dollars, according to the Coalition’s amended complaint.

Organizers have been spreading the word among Westside neighborhoods these past months, feeding their foot soldiers on breakfast tacos, OJ, and coffee.

“We just think the larger community, not just San Antonio, but the nation, continues to lose access to the commons,” said Esperanza Peace & Justice Center Executive Director Graciela Sánchez. “Dissent continues to be quieted down and stifled … These streets and the parks and the public venues, it’s the only thing we have left.”

Come January 26, Judge Rodriquez will pick up the case again. In the meantime, Free Speech organizers will be blanketing the city with yard signs and handbills as they walk block by block, raising the profile of what could be a precedent-setting case for communities across the country.

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