Last year, a California man who was among the many rising against the banking industry during the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests, used chalk to mark his discontent on the sidewalk outside Bank of America buildings. Now, that man about to enter trial that could land him with a fine up to $13,000 and up to 13 years in prison.
Jeff Olson used washable chalk popular among hopscotch-playing children to write “no thanks big banks” and “shame on Bank of America” on the sidewalks of three of the branch’s buildings on numerous occasions, according to KFMB-TV. And he admits it.
But it’s the charge of 13 counts of vandalism that Olson disagrees with, saying his use of sidewalk chalk to protest the banks was freedom of speech and not damaging property.
“Always on city sidewalks, washable chalk, never crude messages, never vulgar, clearly topical,” he told KFMB.
The outlet reported a Bank of America customer agreeing with Olson’s perspective saying she doens’t think his actions constitute vandalism.
“No, vandalism is not the work that came to mind. Seemed like freedom of speech. A little extreme, but it was just chalk,” Wendy Greene said.
“My daughter plays with chalk every day and writes on the sidewalk. We just wash it off,” another North Park resident said, according to KFMB.
The judge overseeing the case though doesn’t quite agree with Olson and others on some points.
“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 Howard Shore said.
This means the jury will not be able to factor in any free speech arguments made by the defendant in their decision.
Watch KFMB’s report:
The San Diego City Attorney’s office is making the prosecuting case against Olson, which has some questioning the use of taxpayer dollars for an issue that could be washed off with water.
U-T San Diego reported more on this perspective:
During jury selection, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard asked 12 potential jurors if they thought the case against Olson was a poor use of taxpayer money. At least six hands shot up.
“I think this is a tremendous waste,” said one.
That view was echoed by Olson, who spoke to the U-T during a courtroom break.
“This is an unconstitutional overreach and a total waste of taxpayer money,” he said. “I’m am not going out on a limb to say that this is outrageous.”
Even the city’s mayor Bob Filner wrote in a memo last week that he believes “this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money.”
But U-T reported the Neighborhood Prosecution Unit head Regan Savalla saying all graffiti cases are treated the same, regardless of the permanency — or lack there of — of medium used. Not only that but Olson said to KGTV-TV that one branches claimed it cost $6,000 to clean off the chalk.
As for the weighty maximum sentence that could be handed down if convicted by the jury of all 13 counts, the city’s attorney’s office sent a statement to clarify.
“This is not a 13 year custody case. It is a standard graffiti case compounded by the fact that the defendant is alleged to have done it on 13 separate occasions. Because there were 13 different occasions when the defendant allegedly engaged in the conduct, the law requires them to be set out separately in the complaint,” the statement read, according to the Huffington Post. This increases the maximum sentence, but it still is a graffiti case and nothing more. The courts routinely hear graffiti cases and handle them appropriately using judicial discretion.”
Featured image via Shutterstock.com.