San Francisco City Hall has been making headlines this week for considering a law prohibiting the sale of any animals as pets in the city. The proposed ban, expanded from a bill meant to shut down puppy and kitten farms, would include fish, reptiles, birds, insects, and rodents. Quipped the Los Angeles Times, "If it flies, crawls, runs, swims or slithers, you would not be able to buy it in the city named for the patron saint of animals." This is, of course, not the first relatively normal thing that San Francisco has tried to ban. In its unending quest to be a place of populist values that represent the under-served, give voice to the voiceless, improve the quality of life for all, and promote peace and the environment, the city sometimes legislates itself into ridiculousness. Here's a look at some of the more notable things in recent memory that San Francisco has tried to ban, sometimes with success.
Handguns: A measure passed by city voters in 2005 banned the possession of handguns for private use. It also prohibited the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any type of firearms within the city limits of San Francisco. The National Rifle Association immediately sued to have the ban overturned, and in 2008, after a series of decisions and appeals, the California Supreme Court decided the ban was unconstitutional.
Circumcision: Activists have gotten enough signatures on a proposed ballot measure banning the practice of circumcision to add it to this fall's election. The proposed ban quickly became the subject of controversy by critics who said it would be an institutionalized form of antisemitism. Last week, a coalition of Jews and Muslims sued the city's elections commission to have the measure removed from the ballot before the election. "There are anti-Semitic overtones to the initiative ... that adds to the perception of threat by the Jewish community," attorney Michael Jacobs said.
Plastic shopping bags: In 2007, the city's board of supervisors successfully passed the nation's first ban on plastic shopping bags at supermarkets and large chain pharmacies. Unlike some of the other bans that have received snickers from the rest of the country, this one worked well, reducing the number of bags consumed in the city by about five million a month in its first year. Now, Portland, Oregon, Boston, and other cities have also instituted their own bans.
Smoking: While plenty of cities and states have prohibited smoking indoors, San Francisco was at the vanguard of that movement. Since California banned smoking in most indoor public places in 1994, and in bars and nightclubs in 1998, San Francisco has gone much further. The most recent extension of its citywide smoking ban, passed in March 2010, prohibits lighting up at ATMs, pretty much any line in which you're waiting, outdoor seating at cafes, and some semi-enclosed bar patios. The ban passed the board of supervisors unanimously, and anti-smoking activists are eager to expand it even further.
Bike lanes: San Francisco prides itself on its environmentally conscious attitude and legislation. That means encouraging bicycling and other alternative transit, but it also means strict adherence to California's requirement that an environmental impact review be conducted before any major construction project. So when the city wrote and began to implement a comprehensive plan to paint more bike lanes, add bike parking, and establish new bicycle routes, all it took was one man, Rob Anderson, to sue for it to be halted. Anderson argued that the plan, like any effort to change the look and feel of the streetscape, required an environmental impact report, which the city had not done. A judge enjoined the plan's implementation in 2006, and it wasn't allowed to go forward until August 2010.
Happy Meals: In November 2010, the board of supervisors voted by a veto-proof margin to prohibit restaurants from giving out free toys with meals whose calories, fat, and sugar exceeded set levels. If a restaurant does want to give out a free toy with a meal, it must also come with fruit and vegetables.
Battleships: In 2006, the U.S. Navy decommissioned the U.S.S. Iowa, one of the biggest battleships it had every sailed. It wanted to give the ship to San Francisco to use as a tourist attraction, but the board of supervisors voted against accepting it. USA Today reported at the time: "Supervisors who oppose the offer say they don't want a ship from a military in which openly gay men and women cannot serve. They also say they don't want it because they oppose the Iraq war, which city voters condemned in a 2004 ballot question."
Sitting or lying on the sidewalk: Last November, voters approved a measure prohibiting people from sitting or lying on the sidewalk. San Francisco has a large homeless population, and dealing with that frequently puts its principles at odds. The city wants to care for its under-served, but it wants to promote good quality of life for all its citizens, and that does not mean encouraging aggressive panhandlers. The upshot: A majority voted to ban sidewalk loafing once and for all.
Phone Books: In May, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee signed into law a bill that bans the unsolicited delivery of the Yellow Pages phone book. Nobody seems to be all that upset about it, except possibly the Yellow Pages folks.