Free speech and right of appeal under fire in San Luis Obispo

June 25, 2024

Richard Schmidt


News Flash: San Luis Obispo City wants Jane Q Citizen to pay $3,500 in fees to appeal a faulty use permit the city issued for a fraternity next door to her home. That’s up from an already too high fee of $792, and appears to be a naked political maneuver to shut down appeals altogether.

That increase is what city staff are telling the city council to do Tuesday July 2. Is that fair? Is it decent? Should we allow our city council to do that to us?

The right to appeal to government is a fundamental human right under our American constitutional system. That’s because, as all who are properly educated should know, the right of appeal is explicitly spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees “the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

That right, a basic human right for all of us, is stated without qualification. The First Amendment doesn’t say the right of appeal is open only to the rich, only to those who can afford whatever “fee” a city may want to charge, and is closed to the rest of us. The guaranteed appeal right is open to all, on an equal basis.

It was only by adding a “bill of individual citizens’ rights” to the draft constitution, which as originally conceived was a document describing the bureaucratic structure and purpose of the federal government, that ratification of the Constitution by the 13 states was secured. And the First Amendment was first because it encompassed hot human rights issues of that era: freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and appeal to government, all of which had been abused – in colonists’ eyes – by the British crown.

One may recall also that glib mishandling of citizen “petitions” by the King of England had been explicitly cited in the Declaration of Independence as justification for revolution. “A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

In the years since Constitutional ratification, the importance of the right of appeal has only grown, and courts have made clear that both speech and petition are integral to maintaining the democratic process.

The city of San Luis Obispo, having already truncated speech rights by cutting off video comments, now wants to truncate appeal rights as well by charging fees it knows will all but eliminate the ability of common people to appeal staff decisions.

This is a city choice, not a necessary thing. Staff’s report for the July 2 City Council consideration of jacked up appeal fees puts it this way: “Many city services are considered a general public good and are funded through general tax revenues, however, some services are funded only by the users of the service.”

The city has arbitrarily decided that the “general public good” doctrine applies to streets and bike lanes, things paid for by the city, but doesn’t apply to protecting the human rights of speech and appeal. In other words, making an appeal is like parking your car in a municipal garage and paying a parking fee – you use a city service and you pay for it.

That’s a fundamental thought error based on ignoring centuries of appeals history and the important role the right of appeal plays in keeping government honest and responsive. Appeals aren’t a city service, they’re a right.

Further, the city admits (in the staff report for July 2’s meeting) it is using high appeal fees to truncate the right of appeal in order to achieve certain political ends: “to not overly encourage” appeals, to avoid costs, and “to not discourage housing or other important City Goals.” That’s shows deliberate intent to use appeal fees as a political tool and to ignore the human rights such policy short-changes.

As for why the huge proposed fourfoldplus increase in fees, the staff report justifies this as “due to the controversial nature and complexity of appeals,” which suggests further political motive. After all, appeals would be “controversial” to staff whose decisions are being questioned by the appeal.

Having shed the arrogance of the King George, is it now up to city staff to assume an equivalent role of inflicting “repeated injury” with impunity?

It strikes me there’s a fundamental problem not only with the city’s fee proposal, but also with its thinking about the role and purpose of appeals. Fees that are so high as to be exclusionary for most of us are wrong. But isn’t charging anything for appeals equally wrong? Human rights are things that accrue to us, not things we should have to pay for.

If you have any thoughts on this issue, you can email them to the city council at


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That is just insane! Isn’t it part of their job to consider appeals? Why would they need to impose a fee? They are double dipping. They are already receiving their paycheck, already paid by you and me for their time. They have no right to be paid twice! Sounds like a government entity who has grown too strong. Alienating citizens from the opportunity to “complain”?? Where is Julie T.? Is this even legal?

Just like with the County Clerk and election time, the clerks calls for more money to count votes and I always thought counting votes was already part of the job description so why the need for additional funds?

Just a clarification. The right to appeal is NOT a human right but a political right. They are not the same thing. The Bill of Rights was passed AFTER the Constitution was ratified. It was to improve the Constitution and not an original part of it.

Actually, the correct time sequence is as stated in the article, not in your reply. Some states would not ratify the proposed constitution without its including a bill of rights. The two were thus ratified simultaneously, as a single unit, at the same time.

Staff continually recommends ordinances and policies that make it impossible for the working folks here in SLO to afford participating in city governance and/or living here. If there is a decision made by the city’s advisory bodies that will negatively affect your neighborhood and/or home and you don’t have an extra $3,400. laying around, then you’re just out of luck. This is another example of our city government trying to lock its residents out of decision making and only allowing participation to the wealthy. With no ability to appeal, many residents will just have to grin and bear it or move.

$3,408 + $104 “IT fee” = $3,512 to appeal. Those pesky IT fees!

The people who want to silence others are the bad guys…. never forget that… no matter what the issue the side that wants to shut you up and gag you are the bad guys….

City Staff justifies the $3500 fee by claiming it costs over $17,000 for Staff to prepare for the appeal. Really?

Just let the City Council decide if the original ruling was fair. No need to spin the Report that was already made to the Planning Commission.

This is 100% about making sure the average resident is silenced with no ability to appeal because a $3500 fee to appeal to the City Council is out of reach for most.

Isn’t preparing for the occasional appeal already part of their job, why should there be additional costs for doing their regular job? More likely staff just wants to increase their already outrageous compensations.

Did these bureaucrats pass the constitution test in the eighth grade or have our schools determined that it’s no longer pertinent? Either way all public officials should be required to pass the test before taking office or being hired.

Staff doesn’t like push back or their decisions questioned. Higher appeal fees insulates them from being held accountable by the public.