Free Speech in San Antonio, is free
San Antonians no longer have to worry about a price tag dangling from their right to assemble in the streets or public spaces.
San Antonio leads the nation in economic inequality which doesn’t come at a surprise. With the imbalance comes major issues: housing, inadequate education and inferior circumstances. However, activists and public officials believed these issues can’t be addressed if people’s first amendment rights are stifled.
City council unanimously voted on March 1 in favor of reforming the 11-year-old law that required an application fee of $75 and an additional estimated amount — that could cost thousands — issued by the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD.) The old ordinance also stated that citizens can march on the sidewalk without a permit, but if San Antonians do not comply, they could receive hefty fines that can be as high as $500.
The new ordinance is completed online as opposed to citizens going through SAPD. It’s available in English and Spanish, and most importantly, it’s free of charge. San Antonians can apply for the permit 15 days prior to the free speech event. The revision was a collaborative effort between SA Free Speech Coalition, District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino, City Attorney Andy Segovia and SAPD.
With the reform in place, certain communities can feel more inclined to exercise their First Amendment Rights.
“We are glad they removed the barrier of cost, that is going to benefit the most vulnerable communities which would be communities of color or those of who live economic segregated communities,” said Joleen Garcia, spokesperson for SA Free Speech Coalition.
Why did the reform come about?
On Feb. 7, 2017, Trevino issued a City Council Consideration Request (CCR) to review the marching ordinance. This came after a group of protesters approached Trevino after they were asked to leave San Antonio International Airport for protesting Donald Trump's proposed Muslim travel ban.
Trevino discovered the ordinance lacked clarity and the application process was complicated. Those seeking to apply had to go through SAPD which posed as a problem for activists for one reason: intimidation. Another obstacle was the non-existent Spanish options, since San Antonio is predominantly Latino.
This resulted in spontaneous assemblance without a permit: Women’s March against Hate, SATX4 Black Lives Matter March and the anti-Senate Bill 4 (SB4) march.
“Whose streets,” Barbie Hurtado, activist asked anti-Senate Bill 4 (SB4) marchers on Sept. 1 at Milam Park.
“Our streets!” they shouted back as they took the streets.
SB4 allows law enforcement to question the immigration status of citizens and work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.) If law enforcement does not comply they could receive a civil penalty.
Since the streets are paid for by taxpayer dollars, activists believe the streets are theirs. During the final City Council B Session of 2017, council members shared the same concerns. Shirley Gonzales, District 5 councilperson, challenged SAPD and City Attorney Andy Segovia with a simple question on spontaneous marching.
“How are people supposed to march on a sidewalk, when there are no places to walk on but the street?” Gonzales asked as activists applauded her. “Streets are public spaces paid for by taxpayers’ money.”
Garcia, and many say it's safer to march in the streets because sidewalks in San Antonio aren’t kind to folks — especially those in wheelchairs.
Making Free Speech Gratis
Trevino praised current Mayor Ron Nirenberg for taking action when he came into office. The process to revise this ordinance took 13 months and a main component was election season. Trevino and public officials wanted to be methodical and careful tackling the issue of free speech.
This meant, city officials coming out to the community to meet with people who have concerns. Garcia wants the city to continue that approach because she believes it produces results. The City Attorneys called their final meeting with the Coalition, on Dec. 5 at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, their most effective. The meeting had over a hundred people that included SAPD, City Attorneys and activists.
“The City needs to do away with this idea of making decisions in city hall. I think it’s important that city comes out of their walls and where they normally do business and come out to the community,” Garcia said.
Trevino said this is a great example of a city and its citizens coming together and creating a policy that benefits everyone. He and city officials expect more marches, rallies and dialogue. He drew attention to San Antonians not wasting any time to exercise their First Amendment rights: March for Our Lives on Saturday March 24. Over 5,500 people participated in the march that addressed assault rifles and called for stricter gun laws.
“One of our biggest responsibilities here at City Hall is to ensure that everybody has a voice here,” Trevino said. “We welcome people who want to speak up, we welcome people who want their voices heard, and we’ll do everything to protect that.”