Activists March Against San Antonio's Pricey Protest Policies

click to enlarge Joleen Garcia (left) and Councilman Roberto Treviño. - LYANNE A. GUARECUCO
Lyanne A. Guarecuco
Joleen Garcia (left) and Councilman Roberto Treviño.

In San Antonio, free speech is not technically "free." That is, according to the the San Antonio Free Speech Coalition, a group comprised of more than 45 different local activist organizations. On Wednesday, the group gathered on the front steps of City Hall with one goal in mind: to challenge the pricey way the city currently regulates marches and protests.

Prior to a march or protest, organizers are required to pay $75 for a permit at least a month beforehand, according to a 2008 city ordinance. Then there's the additional, mandatory cost set by the city to cover police officers and traffic control personnel on the scene. While the city absorbs the first $3,000 of these cost, organizers are responsible for paying the rest — but the city won't let them know how much that will be until after the protest. That payment, which could be in the thousands, is due within 30 days.

If they don't get a permit, they'll be hit with a $500 fine.

Back in January, when millions of women around the world participated in the Women's March the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration, San Antonio held a smaller, 1,500-person march without a permit (in this particular instance, they weren't fined). Joleen Garcia, a community organizer with the coalition, told the San Antonio Express-News this was because a full-scale Women's March would have come with a price tag from SAPD ranging between $7,000 to $10,000.

The coalition argued Wednesday that the cost to exercise free speech in San Antonio is far too high, and not knowing the amount they’ll be required to pay until after the protest is enough to deter them from exercising their First Amendment rights. “Folks are being discouraged,” said Garcia.

The coalition’s battle to change the city’s process goes back to near the beginning of the ordinance itself — back in 2008, the coalition sued the city of San Antonio, saying the police department overcharged certain permit applicants for inexplicable reasons. In 2009, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez found the ordinance unconstitutional on three counts — one of which was that the chief of police had overly broad discretion in assessing costs for permits. While the city tweaked minor areas of the ordinance, activists say the biggest hurdles for organizers remain in place almost 10 years later.

Protestors in front of city hall alternated chants, saying "Paid for speech is not free speech!" and "Las calles son del pueblo, las calles no se callan!" ("The streets belong to the people, the people will not be silenced!")

Though efforts from the coalition to reshape the ordinance aren't novel, the coalition is ramping up its efforts once again — this time, with the support of some city council members.

Back in February, councilman Roberto Treviño authored a city council consideration request (the city version of a bill) asking that the council reconsider the city’s First Amendment assembly and procession procedures, though any changes to the city’s policy have yet to be made. Council members Treviño and Rey Saldaña joined the protest in front of City Hall, showing support for the coalition.

“This is about making sure you’re raising your voice and using it to do good,” Saldaña said. “There should not be any tax or fee on your free speech.”

Councilwomen Shirley Gonzales echoed Saldaña in a press release following the protest.

“Streets and public spaces should be available for community members to exercise their first amendment right," she said. "Charging people to pay fees to assemble is an impediment to their right to free speech, especially when they do not have the means to pay."

Garcia said they ultimately hope to eliminate high costs for marches, get rid of the fine in place for marching without a permit, and change the “convoluted” process of obtaining the adequate permits, since the city does not have a designated office or employee to handle requests.

“There’s no one office that you can go to. You have to go to the police department if you want to close a street, you have to go to the parks department if you wanna have a rally in a park, you have to go to the city center department to access Main Plaza, or Hemisphere, or anywhere in the downtown area — that’s a different department. And if you wanna do the airport, then it’s the airport department,” Garcia said. “So we have people, with a variety of issues, and they don’t know where to go.”