Bank of America and the San Diego city attorney really, really want Jeff Olson to stop scrawling bad things about banks in chalk on sidewalks in front of BofAs.
Olson was charged with 13 misdemeanor counts of vandalism, one count for each offense, and went on trial last week in San Diego County Superior Court. He faces 13 years in jail and a $13,000 fine, which would be a harsher penalty than any Wall Street executives received for the 2008 financial crisis they engineered. None of them were charged with fraud, although the Securities and Exchange Commission did wring $2.68 billion in penalties from people and institutions.
Olson won’t be talking much publicly about the irony of that or his plight.
In an unusual move, Judge Howard Shore issued a gag order that covers the defendant, witnesses, the jury and others connected to the case. But before it was issued, Olson accused Republican City Attorney Jan Goldsmith of prosecuting him to win the support of banks for a rumored mayoral run against incumbent Bob Filner, a Democrat in the traditionally conservative city.
The gag order apparently did not include Filner, who sent a memo to the city council in support of Olson that was reprinted in the San Diego Reader.
“This young man is being persecuted for thirteen counts of vandalism stemming from an expression of political protest that involved washable children's chalk on a City sidewalk. It is alleged that he has no previous criminal record. If these assertions are correct, I believe this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money. It could also be characterized as an abuse of power that infringes on First Amendment particularly when it is arbitrarily applied to some, but not all, similar speech.”
Olson began his one-man protest against banks in October 2011, carrying signs in front of a BofA branch with messages like “Stop Big Banks.” He discovered “Creatology” chalk, a favorite of children, in February 2012 and every few days for six months wrote on the sidewalk in front of BofAs. Sometimes he dressed up his message with pictures, like an octopus with wads of cash in its tentacles, but was never crude, vile or pornographic.
The bank asked him to stop. He refused. BofA officials reportedly complained to the city attorney’s office and charges were filed against Olson last April. The Reader cited court documents from the city attorney’s office that brushed off Olson’s free speech claim (“now waiving a banner of the First Amendment”) after first addressing the larger issue.
“The People do not fear that this reading of section 594(A) will make criminals of every child using chalk. Chalk festivals may still be permitted. Kids acting without malice may still engage in their art.”
Speaking of First Amendment rights, Judge Shore told the defense attorney that he could not exercise his by speaking about free speech issues during the trial, according to the Reader, because, “The State's Vandalism Statute does not mention First Amendment rights.”