Trampling the First Amendment in a small town by the sea

Even the chamber of commerce asked us to remove our rack from its vicinity. Images by Stacey Warde

Some readers felt we had crossed a line. Even the chamber of commerce asked us to remove our rack from its vicinity. Images by Stacey Warde

by Stacey Warde

In the early days of the Rogue Voice, when it was still merely a monthly newsprint journal, we published a story about what prisoners do when they get horny.

Tito David Valdez, Jr., doing 25-years-to-life for conspiracy to commit murder, wrote an essay about “Hittin’ it,” an intimate look at the secret ways inmates find opportunities to masturbate or get off without being observed in a well-guarded penal institution.

We also learned about lady boys in mini-skirts who look fabulous and would by all appearances seem to be real women, except for the fact they weren’t, and how most inmates, like David, avoided unnecessary drama and complications in prison, by not getting involved.

It was an informative and educational narrative. David’s column, a regular known to readers as “Life in the Cage,” and all his other subsequent columns, gave taxpayers a close-up, insider’s view of how their dollars were being spent to incarcerate convicted felons.

But one meddlesome mom from our fair village by the sea didn’t like his column. She felt we had stepped over the line, and offended the community standard for frank talk about prison sex in ‘06.

As any good moralist, she decided to take action. She meant to protect her teenage daughter and other impressionable youth in our town from the adult content, and unseemly influence of our magazine, which was then in 2006 only four months old.

Like an enormous huffing beast, she stormed into the coffee shop where I was talking with a friend and barreled into the rear of the shop where we kept stacks of our magazine. I felt her rage as she passed by me.

Seconds later, she came back our way, a full stack of Rogue Voices stuffed under her arm. “Hey, wait a minute!” I demanded. “Where do you think you’re going with those?”

“I’m going to make a barbecue out of these,” she fumed, heading for the door.

“No you’re not!” I answered. “I work my ass off to put out those damned magazines. Put them back, right now!”

She harrumphed, breathing loudly and laboriously through her nose. I felt as if she were about to punch me, but she turned away, with close to 100 of my magazines stuffed under her arm, and walked out the door of the coffee shop.

A sheriff’s deputy arrived. The barista, a contributor and editor and supporter of the magazine, had called for law enforcement to protect my First Amendment right to free speech.

The angry mom had stolen that right. She was violating state, federal and constitutional law.

The deputy dutifully questioned me, asked me what was the problem, and I told him that a woman had walked out of the coffee shop with a stack of my magazines and threatened to burn them.

“Well, why should I help you,” he said finally, “when you write negative stories about law enforcement?”

Dell Franklin had recently written a first-hand account of the City of San Luis Obispo’s fascist policing operation to intimidate Mardi Gras revelers by bringing in hundreds of police from around the state to control the unruly student mob.

By many accounts, including Dell’s, the police, called upon to keep order, were as likely to create disorder—randomly shooting bean-bag rounds into parties, freely harassing passersby on the street, detaining and questioning revelers—as students were to misbehave by celebrating the centuries old annual tradition of upending the conventions of culture.

Dell’s article offered graphic evidence of police going a bit too far, terrorizing college students who were minding their own business.

Tired of moralists trashing our publication, we ran a full-page ad reminding them of another standard.

Tired of moralists trashing our publication, we ran a full-page ad reminding them of another standard.

“Your job,” I reminded the deputy, “is to protect my First Amendment right to free speech. It doesn’t matter whether you like what I print.” I pointed my finger in the direction where I’d last seen the angry mom walking out the door with my property: “She’s violating my right to free speech. What she’s doing is illegal.”

He thought for a moment. “It’s a free magazine, isn’t it?”

“That doesn’t mean she can take the whole stack!”

In fact, state Assemblyman George Plescia, a Republican from San Diego, had recently authored, and the legislature passed, a bill, AB2612, protecting free newspapers and magazines from abusers lifting full stacks off the racks. Apparently, San Diego was having the same problem. The offense carried a sizable fine.

“We must work to ensure that no one is able to deprive others of their First Amendment rights,” then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement on AB2612. “The freedom of the press is one of the most precious freedoms that Americans enjoy.”

The deputy left, presumably to consult with the offending party, and asked me to wait. He returned and informed me that the woman had been reminded that it’s my right to publish what I want and that she didn’t have the right to refuse it.

“Where’re my magazines?” I asked.

“They’re gone,” he said.

I was too angry to press the matter about the fate of that stack of magazines. I did not want to be thrown in jail for harassing or assaulting an officer.

I wrote a letter to Plescia, thanking him for protecting my First Amendment rights, while local law enforcement and would-be protectors of community standards thought less of those rights than they should.

“I edit and publish a free monthly literary journal,” I noted after thanking him, “which has had its share of vandalism from those who object to its content.

“Until now, our only support [has come] from readers who do not want others deciding for them what they can or cannot read.

“Thanks for your support. We lift our hats to you, Mr. Plescia, for your defense of our First Amendment right to a free press.”

As regards community standards and federal guidelines for offensive material, we avowed again in our pages the value of reading, of determining for oneself whether there are any redeeming qualities in our content, which would then guarantee its full protection under the law.

Not content with literally trashing our magazine, the angry mom rounded up a herd of like-minded matrons to pester local businesses to cease advertising in our magazine or to quit displaying the Rogue Voice on their premises, which is their perfect right.

The Cayucos Chamber of Commerce, coerced, asked us to remove our rack from its vicinity. We lost one advertiser while another said: “Tell those gals to get a life!”

Those “gals,” I noted in a 2006 February column titled “Our naughty little rag,” were going about town, raging to this or that business owner, “to protest its unseemly content, and to protect our impressionable teens from words like ‘fuck’ and ‘titty.’”

We were amazed that our troublesome youth had given up the internet and cell phones to go in “search of colorful language in the pages of our…morally reprehensible rag. It’s hard to imagine youngsters,” I mused, “pulling themselves away from their computers to actually read a newspaper; more terrible to think they’re reading one with naughty words.”

Oddly, or perhaps not so odd, the small-town upheaval came on the heels of an earlier trashing of another publication in which it seemed everyone everywhere in the county felt they had a moral duty to censor content they didn’t like.

Local alternative weekly New Times had published a story about methamphetamine by Alice Moss that also included a recipe on how to make the stuff. Residents went berserk, lifting the rag off racks throughout San Luis Obispo County and sending them to the landfill.

An eery absence of the weekly could be seen on virtually every rack in the county. Not one New Times could be found any where. The article itself had been informative enough and may have actually had some redeeming social value, despite its loony and irresponsible instructions on how to make meth.

A better method for informing readers about the ease of making meth would have been to take a photo of and list the ingredients. Let some fool decide how to put it all together. Good citizens, meanwhile, took it upon themselves to protect hapless individuals from the dubious joys of meth-making by eliminating the newspaper’s presence from our community.

The hysteria broke national news.

Amid the frenzy of throwing newspapers into the trash, KVEC hometown radio host Dave Congalton asked me and Dell to go on the air to discuss the issue. Many callers agreed that while they may not like what our publication prints, it’s our legal right to publish as we see fit. In fact, despite our “liberal” label, as some claimed, our most vocal defenders were more often conservatives.

It wasn’t the last time hoodlums took it upon themselves to sabotage our publishing efforts. Throughout the county, we continually heard reports from our friends that individuals were helping themselves to stacks of our magazine and making them disappear.

Finally, we’d had enough and ran a full-page photo on the back cover of the Rogue Voice showing nothing but a bible sitting on our rack, no magazines, with the headline, “Thou shalt not steal.”

It may not have made any difference in whether people trashed our magazine but it made us feel better, and we got a good laugh out of it. More importantly, we continued to publish, 32 more editions in all, without apology, and with a commitment to give voice to those who don’t often have a voice, protected by the First Amendment. §

Stacey Warde is publisher of TheRogueVoice.com

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