The Trump administration has expressed frustration with the way protests were handled around the country and now new media reports show Attorney General William Barr is asking local prosecutors whether they can get more aggressive in the way they're dealing with protest-related violence, even potentially using a rarely used sedition law.
Sedition means conduct or speech that incites people to rebel against the government. Attorney General Barr is asking prosecutors around the country whether they should use that charge to attempt to stop violence related to protests, according to reports.
"To try to invoke that law and use it against protesters around the country is chilling and certainly speaks of really scary federal overreach," said Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney for San Diego's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Here in San Diego, a municipal code on the city's books makes it illegal for anyone to use seditious language within earshot of other people. According to San Diego police, officers have issued 83 citations for it between July 2013 and May 2020. One of those went to Paul Howie in 2015.
"The cops were looking for something to write me up for and they had to converse with each other about, 'Okay what do we get this guy for?' basically," Howie said.
Howie says he was out one night in Pacific Beach and got into an argument with a few girls after he left a bar. Police approached him to find out what was going on and eventually charged him with seditious language.
"I was still handcuffed, shaking my head like I can't believe this is happening," he said. He ended up paying a $200 fine.
It's incidents like this that led to San Diego's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to ask the city to repeal the law. They say not only is it unconstitutional, they believe it's used when police officers get angry and want to charge someone with something - which is why the ACLU says it's concerned that the top law official in the United States would suggest using it.
"It punishes speech and there are first amendment protections against doing that," Markovitz said.
The city attorney's office recently drafted an ordinance to repeal the seditious language law here in San Diego. It passed a City Council committee vote last week and will be heading to the full city council for a final vote soon.
City Attorney Mara Elliot said in a statement to NBC 7:
"What Bill Barr may not know is that we still live in a free country, where Americans are able to freely criticize the government. Peaceful protesters have a constitutional right to speak their minds, and that's why we're repealing the antiquated prohibition on seditious language right here in San Diego."
A spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department said it instructed officers to stop enforcing the law in late July. He said Chief Nisleit supports the repeal of the ordinance.