City Asked for Speaker Names Before Last Month

Gerrie Schipske

[Editor’s Note: What to do? Gerrie Schipske’s history column, “That’s the Way It Was,” addresses a current event topic that includes her opinion – a big no-no. So if the item contains opinion, current events and history, we’ll throw it into this “catch-all” space since it hasn’t been filled yet!]

It was no surprise that the current mayor and City Council want to control who speaks during public comment and took steps to limit public comments.

It is a fitting tribute to the former mayor, for whom the council chambers are named, who also tried to clamp down on those pesky residents who don’t think it is a democracy when their council votes 9-0 on everything put before them. These residents feel that at least there should be some discussion and exploration of dissent.

But having to listen to public comment for more than a few minutes, means less time on the lap tops or the cell phones messaging supporters or arranging for the next officeholder account fundraiser. It also means less time for self-congratulatory talk or an endless stream of proclamations.

They cannot control what the speakers say, but they can intimidate them by asking for their names and the topic they will address. (But they cannot mandate and must let a person speak even if they choose not to disclose their information.)

Long Beach sadly has a history of this same oppressive behavior. Back in 1923, activist Fanny Bixby Spencer was attempting to arrange the use of Bixby Park for the socialist speaker, Eugene V. Debs. The park actually had been reserved by the Southern California Chapter of the Civil Liberties Union. Debs had requested to speaker before the Long Beach City Council but had to cancel due to health.

When Debs had to cancel, Fanny Bixby Spencer came to City Council and requested that a meeting be held in the city auditorium or Bixby Park. “After all,” she reminded the council “my father was a member of the union and donated the park to the city.”

Squire DuRee, the director of public recreation and buildings, demanded that the Civil Liberties Union turnover the names of every speaker that is scheduled for the meeting or a permit for use will not be given. DuRee warned that is Debs name appeared on the list, the matter would be placed on the City Council agenda.

The City Council voted to bar Debs from speaking in any municipally owned building or park after members of the American Legion and “other patriotic organizations” denounced Debs as “a traitor to his country.” Debs had been an outspoken critic of the US involvement in WWI and was convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 and sentenced to federal prison for 10 years. He was pardoned by President Warren G. Harding but never forgiven by veterans organizations.

The matter was reconsidered by council, when three members were absent and pressure mounted by the local labor leaders to let Debs speak. The council voted to allow Debs to speak in the municipal auditorium. 

After the vote, members of the Community Hospital Project Committee and the Auditorium Committee threatened to resign if Debs were allowed to speak. Debs backed out of speaking in Long Beach due to his health. The City of Huntington Beach barred him as well from appearing on public property.


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