Why is Civic Activism and Journalism Legal and Who was Jerry Schneiderman?

Jerry Schneiderman wearing funny horns. Image via Facebook

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Article 1, the Declaration of Rights, of the California Constitution
Year: 1849
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: Chip Jacobs

"America," Chip Jacobs says, "is still that enviable place on the hill."

Jacobs -- journalist and gonzo author extraordinaire of titles such as "Smogtown" and "Wheeling the Deal" -- is claiming American exceptionalism here with particular regard to free speech.

That's a topic likely near and dear to anyone reading these words. Free speech is also the unspoken foundation on which Jacobs' new James Ellroy meets Jane Addams, true crime meets civic activism title, "Ascension of Jerry: Murder, Hitmen, and the Making of L.A. Muckraker Jerry Schneiderman," was built.

(Presumably, an alternative title, "The Jerry Schneiderman Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" was already taken.)

The book's Los Angeles protagonist, Schneiderman, found himself unwittingly entangled in bad doings circa 1979 and then came out the other side as a creative, ambitious, unusually thorough and successful citizen crusader.

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Time and time again, Schneiderman grappled with what he -- and others -- perceived to be local government arrogance, corruption and incompetence. His successes were legion, and he was more than just a nag, merry prankster or, too common today, government access television glory hound.

That challenge, that protected if not promoted outrage, is something that not every other city, state and nation tolerates.

Jacobs extemporaneously ticks off the names of nations in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia. "The world," he says, "is not a free expression type of place."

For among these reasons, and in honor of his longtime writer-subject relationship with Schneiderman, who died last year, Jacobs has nominated as a Law That Shaped L.A., Article 1, the Declaration of Rights, of the California Constitution.

Jerry Schneiderman from a 2004 LA City Beat cover story

Jacobs also gives a sustained shout-out to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. "My god," Jacobs says, "the First Amendment is the blessing of America."

Jacobs says California's "very liberal interpretation" of the federal version is another blessing. "This," he says, "is what has allowed journalists and others to be watchdogs."

Of course, there are watchdogs, and then there is Schneiderman as Cerberus. Of course, sweet Hades, if a nearby hit, financial ruin and a broken marriage didn't put the man to sleep, then there's no way a lyre would do the trick.

By the way, free speech was the rule back in ancient, democratic Athens, too. Anyone could say anything without government reprisal. Just ask Socrates.

Back to modern times now. Just be to clear, Jacobs well knows that there is a long, long, long list of other folks whose experiences could be used to personify California's Article 1.

But he knows Schneiderman well, having first written about him during the 1990s. "He attacked concentrations of power that people did not understand," Jacobs says, "because they were too busy in their daily lives or they just thought it was too complicated."

Jacobs cites the following two sentences from the California's Article 1 as being particularly pertinent to Schneiderman:

  • "A law may not restrain or abridge liberty of speech or press;" and
  • "The people have the right to instruct their representatives, petition government for redress of grievances, and assemble freely to consult for the common good."

Schneiderman empoyed all of the above, especially the middle clause of the latter sentence. "He drove the agencies crazy trying to make them release documents, trying to make them to honest settlements with people who had been wronged," Jacobs says of Schneiderman.

Why did Jerry do it? Since Jacobs is to writing what Schneiderman was to gad-flying, and since perhaps the only prose as aces as a Jacobs book is the prose of a Jacobs email, then by way of explanation, its time to close this week's post with some extended play, ace cut-and-paste exposition from a recent Jacobs correspondence:

"Since my true crime book revolves around ham-handed assassins, blue-collar psychopathy, the architecture of good men sloughing off evil and the PTSD of a staggered survivor, legal issues are not at the soul of the story (though you oughta read about what Robert Shapiro and a future California Supreme Court justice, Armand Arabian, failed to do to stop this crime, according to court testimony).
"But legal protections do count here. When I met him, Jerry was very active as a real estate developer turned sorta property-rights activist working to organize a billion-dollar-plus, multi-plaintiff case against the MTA for its destructive Hollywood subway tunneling.
"Using that as a springboard, he protested and hounded other public projects (from the L.A. Unified School District to the now-defunct L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency), denouncing corruption, dressing up a steamrolling councilwoman, writing scathing editorials, orchestrating hunger strikes, spreading rumors of a vapory beast snapping photos of safety violations and forming his own anti-corruption organization, etc.
"You might call him the original Occupier before the movement. It was all public expression guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution. What do you know? Jerry bled that, too."

For more about the Ascension of Jerry: Murder, Hitmen, and the Making of L.A. Muckraker Jerry Schneiderman">book, including a nifty trailer and primary source documents, visit ChipJacobs.com or Rare Bird Books.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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Civic-minded muckraker and gadfly films flourished in the 1950s in a sub-Noir genre that capitalized on the Kefauver Committee's investigation of organized crime. Films like The Captive City, Chicago Confidential, and Phenix City Story (the latter with a priceless viewer introduction to the anti-corruption themes behind the genre) set up the little guy against not mafia but municipal corruption. Probably because these films (B-grade mostly) traded on tropes more associated with northeastern cities and machines, few were set in California. But oh don't we need them now!