Demonstrators gathered outside the Hall of Justice in San Diego, California on Sunday to chalk their support for a local man facing up to 13 years in jail for using washable chalk to voice his protests against Bank of America.
“All I am permitted to say is, I disagree,” the defendant, Jeff Olson, told KGTV-TV as he joined the rally on his behalf before slapping a piece of tape across his mouth with the words “Gag order” written on it to comply with Judge Howard Shore’s order for him not to comment on the case.
Olson attracted the attention of the office of City Attorney Jan Goldsmith at the behest of bank officials, who asked for him to be prosecuted after writing messages like “Shame on Bank of America” and “No thanks big banks” during a six-month period in 2012.
But the San Diego Reader reported on Sunday that local authorities showed leniency toward similar protests outside local Planned Parenthood clinics in 2011 by an anti-abortion group, Live Action San Diego.
“Hey everyone! Just wanted to let you know that we have contacted the San Diego Police Department and they confirmed it is NOT considered vandalism to chalk up a sidewalk,” a Live Action member wrote on the group’s Facebook page in July 2011. A month later, the group said it wrote outside three clinics during a two-hour event.
On Sunday, local fire officials agreed to a request by pro-Olson protesters not to immediately wash away their messages of support. The Reader reported that 100 demonstrators took part in what they called ” Chalk-U-Py San Diego,” and an online petition supporting him had gathered more than 31,000 signatures as of Monday morning.
“It’s ridiculous that something like this is considered a weapon,” one protester told KGTV while holding up a piece of chalk. “I would think it’s believable if he was throwing it at people, but he was writing on cement with it.”
In a June 26 statement, Goldsmith’s office denied targeting Olson — a former campaign staffer for Mayor Bob Filner, who has clashed in public with Goldsmith — in particular, saying his attorney was falsely trying to define the case as a political statement.
“This is just one of some 20,000 criminal cases that are referred to us annually by the police department. We have prosecutors who decide whether to issue cases,” the statement read. “They are professionals. The City Attorney was not involved in deciding whether to issue this case as is typical practice in prosecution offices for most cases. He hadn’t heard of this case until it was in the media.”
Olson also faces a $13,000 fine if he is convicted. On June 25, Shore ruled his attorney could not use free speech as a defense.
“In light of the fact that it’s clear in the case law, vandalism is not a legitimate exercise of free speech rights,” Shore said.
Filner released a statement on Friday criticizing Goldsmith’s office taking the case.
“I mean, it’s chalk. It’s washable chalk,” Filner’s statement read. “It’s political slogans. We are not even responding to public complaints. They were complaints from Bank of America. I think it’s a stupid case and is costing us money. If these are the types of cases the City Attorney is prosecuting then I am not sure he needs as much money in his budget as he says he does.”
Watch KGTV’s report on the rally for Olson’s cause, aired Sunday, below.