Sidewalk Chalk Protest Could Get Man 10 Years In Prison
A California man faces up to ten years in jail for writing messages in sidewalk chalk on a public sidewalk:
SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) – A North Park man is looking at more than a decade behind bars for using washable chalk to protest the banking industry.
Jeff Olson is being charged with 13 counts of vandalism for writing anti-bank slogans on sidewalks outside three Bank of America branches.
A surveillance camera caught Olson in the act, writing on the sidewalk in front of a Bank of America in North Park. But here’s the thing — Olson admits it.
“I wrote ‘No thanks big banks,’ I wrote ‘Shame on Bank of America,'” he said.
For Olson it was about free speech, letting customers know that he blamed big banks for much of our economy’s problems. Not for a minute did he consider it vandalism.
“Always on city sidewalks, washable chalk, never crude messages, never vulgar, clearly topical,” he said.
But the city attorney’s office — after receiving multiple emails from a high ranking bank security manager — decided to charge Olson with 13 counts of misdemeanor vandalism.
“It seems a little extreme,” bank customer Wendy Greene said.
Greene remembers seeing Olson’s writing outside her B of A branch. She doesn’t consider it vandalism.
“No, vandalism is not the work that came to mind. Seemed like freedom of speech. A little extreme, but it was just chalk,” Greene said.
Olson’s attorney argued in motions Tuesday morning that this is free speech written in easily cleanable chalk, but Judge Howard Shore disagreed, saying this case has nothing to do with free speech.
“In light of the fact that it’s clear in the case law, vandalism is not a legitimate exercise of free speech rights. It really is irrelevant what the message is, or content is,” Judge Shore said.
That’s not to say Olson is guilty, but the jury cannot consider his right to free speech when deciding his fate.
Aside from the question of how easily removable sidewalk chalk can be considered “vandalism” akin to say spray painted graffiti, I’ve got to say that Judge Shore’s determination that the jury can’t even consider Olson’s First Amendment rights seems to me to be clearly reversible error. How is there not a First Amendment issue here?
One can only hope that sanity prevails here.