Moderately Priced Speech

Those activist City Councilwomen in District 5 (Patti Radle) and 7 (Elena Guajardo) were the ones who pulled the consent item developed in the troll-dark cellar of the City Manager’s office from the March 1 agenda.

Radle said she has had just a few chances to protect the Constitution in her seat at the Council dais. And the sudden proposal to create a new parade-permit process imposing million-dollar liability insurance fees and police costs upon organizers of moving processions — like the two record-breaking, 18,000-person immigration-reform protests that erupted here in San Quilmas last April — seemed to counter our First Amendment right to peacably “assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” as the Bill of Rights puts it.

The draft of Article 17, which was tabled indefinitely at the March 8 council meeting and will be the subject of a community tete-a-tete between concerned activists and Assistant City Manager Penny Postoak-Ferguson on Thursday, also requires applicants to notify all businesses and homes along a proposed route, increases the permit-application period filed with the chief of police from 30 days to 45 days before an event, and replaces the authority of City Council to hear an appeal of a denied permit with that of the City Manager.

Another conspicuous aspect of the proposal increases the maximum fine for “engaging in, participating in, or organizing a procession without a permit” from $500 to $2,000. (Raising the question, when was the last time you went to a “Basta con Bush” march and asked to see the
organizers’ permit?)

The proposed ordinance raised a flag for Radle, the Westside official who collaborates on the César Chávez March for Justice (taking place March 31 beginning at 11 a.m. at 1321 El Paso in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church), an event exempted from costs and penalties in the existing and proposed parade ordinances, along with the Martin Luther King March and the Veterans Day Parade.   

“I think Elena and I were just concerned it would outprice our right to assemble,” said Radle. “I don’t think `the City was` trying to pull a fast one. They saw it as a simple raising of a fee.”

The proposed changes have created a credibility moment for the principal actors in San Antonio’s grassroots protest efforts — can they organize enough concern about the right to organize?

Councilwoman Guajardo is helping coordinate the delegation of activists going before City staff to weigh in on the ordinance. “We don’t want to give an impression as a city that we are trying to restrict the right of assembly in any way,” the self-described “warrior `for an` open, transparent government” said. “When I spoke with the City Manager’s office they said ‘let’s have an open dialogue’ … it was never about ‘let’s get this thing pushed on the agenda.’”

The meeting is expected to include:

The Southwest Workers Union — the group behind a stationary protest outside the Army recruiting station on Main last Saturday morning in observance of the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war; that coordinates the annual march to cleanup Kelly’s Toxic Triangle surrounding the former Air Force base said to have poured cancer-causing chemicals into a shallow aquifer; and the wily folks behind one of the 18,000-person immigration marches — an event that did not have a permit. “We actually think the permit rules are prohibitive for groups trying to do events,” says SWU organizer Lara Cushing.


The San Antonio Chapter of the ACLU — President Patrick Filyk sees the proposed Article 17 as a “tax on your First Amendment rights.” Board members at a strategy meeting hosted by the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center last Monday were already talking lawsuits. The Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU — I pointed out to attendees — successfully sued their city in 2003 when they proposed similar cost-recovery fees, insurance, and police costs related to peaceful demonstrations.

One good thing Filyk said about the proposal was it’d do away with fixed parade routes (need everything start in Milam Park?)


T.C. Calvert and the Neighborhoods First Alliance/ The Esperanza Peace & Justice Center — In Esperanza gadfly and St. Mary’s law professor Amy Kastely’s view, exempting some events like the MLK March from the ordinance probably would not be upheld as constitutional (see Trewhella v. City of Lake Geneva, she says) since it appears that the permit process could favor less controversial groups and types of speech.

“The City Council might come up with something we don’t agree with and we want to demonstrate against,” said the imposing T.C. Calvert at the Monday-night strategy session.

“Like this ordinance,” shot back Esperanza Executive Director Graciela Sánchez wryly.


San Antonio Police Department reps — “People are writing more into this than is actually there,” said Traffic Administration Officer William Jenkins. “I can assure you that there is no difference `between the existing and proposed ordinances`. This is actually loosening things … rather than making it more strict.” Jenkins supports free speech, he says, and from his perspective collapsing two different ordinances addressing how events use our streets and sidewalks (City Code Chapter 19, articles 12 and 13) into one is a “language-tightening and housekeeping issue.”


City Manager’s Office — An aide in Postoak-Ferguson’s office said they decided at a recent management and executive-level meeting to table the proposal so that they could “kinda include the organizations affected by the ordinance.”