Times, and Law They Are a Changin’
Examiner, January 2, 2002
By Eric Gershon, City Hall Correspondent
World famous as a safehaven for hippies, hipsters and homosexuals, San
Francisco—the vanguard of the American left—seems more like the Deep South
when you actually read the law.
Believe it or not, the birthplace of flower power categorically outlaws
"immoral" and "impure" acts, as well as dirty language and
just about any kind of fun that might "corrupt the morals of youth."
Scores of morality laws dating from the 1930s and earlier remain in the
police code—many of them so out of touch with contemporary attitudes that
even the SFPD wants to eighty-six them.
Supervisor Mark Leno is happy to oblige.
"It makes no sense to have laws on the books that the police have no
intention of enforcing," said Leno, who is sponsoring a revision of the
police code that would eliminate more than 50 ordinances. "Our laws
should reflect the society that they govern."
Some of the old laws pertain to practical concerns made obsolete by
technology, and others have been superceded by similar, or contradictory,
state or federal laws, such as those governing abortion—it’s illegal in
San Francisco, according the police code.
Most of the laws Leno has proposed to strike from the books were initially
passed in 1938, during the administration of Mayor Angelo Rossi, a devout
Italian Catholic who served from 1932 to 1943.
Rossi had strong ties to Archbishop John Mitty of the Diocese of San
Francisco, according to San Francisco State University history professor Bill
Issell, co-author of "San Francisco, 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and
Rossi helped implement a spate of laws heavily influenced by the Catholic
Church, which was fighting a coordinated campaign against the habits and
inclinations of the poor, the worldly, and the Communists, who thrived in San
Francisco in the 1930s, Issell said. (The Communist Party’s local
headquarters was at 121 Haight St.)
Dozens of local laws passed in October 1938 prohibited public displays of
sexuality and representations of it, including posters and "any obscene,
indecent, immoral or impure drama, play, exhibition, show or entertainment, or
any obscene...scene, tableu, incident, exhibition...or entertainment."
Another law forbids swimming in San Francisco Bay "without a suitable
And still another said, "No person shall expose to public
view...any...notice or advertisement purporting to treat or cure diseases of
the sexual organs, or representing the sexual organs of any animals...or
suggesting the performance or practice of abortion..."
Some of the laws governing prostitution were symbolic messages to the
police department itself, which was being investigated at the time for
corruption. The police were accepting payoffs from whorehouses to look the
other way, Issell said.
Besides the morality laws, Leno’s proposal would also strike some classic
quality-of-life laws. One 1938 ordinance specifically outlaws throwing banana
and orange peels on the sidewalks.
Leno expects his proposed code revisions to reach the Board of Supervisors
early this year.
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