Last edited: November 23, 2003


Times, and Law They Are a Changin’

San Francisco 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Some of the old laws pertain to practical concerns made obsolete by technology, and others have been superceded by similar, or contradictory, state or federal laws, such as those governing abortion—it’s illegal in San Francisco, according the police code.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 Urban Development."

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 bathing dress."

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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