California Man Chalks Up A Victory For Free Speech In Bank Of America Case

220px-Chalkimages-1We previously discussed the case of Jeff Olson, Chalk Menace. Olson, 40, was charged with an excessive 13 counts for writing a protest on the sidewalk in front of a Bank of America location. A former aide to the U.S. Senator from Washington, Olson used water-soluble statements like “Stop big banks,” and “Stop Bank Blight.com” outside Bank of America branches last year to protest the company’s practices. The bank’s security contractor (a former police officer) demanded charges from the police and prosecutor who hit the protester with charges that would have allowed 13 years in prison. After Olson was dragged into court, the judge barred him from even mentioned terms like “free speech” or “the first amendment.” I am happy to report that a California jury made quick work of this excessive prosecution and acquitted Olson. It appears that, even with the gag of the court, the jurors could recognize free speech when they saw it.

Olson and his partner had been campaigning to get people to take their money out of the bank. This campaign led to a confrontation with Darell Freeman, vice president of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security, who reportedly demanded action from local prosecutors. Olson stopped when contacted by the San Diego Gang Unit in 2012. Freeman however demanded prosecution and claimed a dubious level of $6,000 in damages for the chalk protest. Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard is shown in emails being high solicitous to Freeman’s demands and even writing him with the good news of the stack of charges.

Superior Court Judge Howard M. Shore then granted Hazard’s motion to prohibit Olson’s attorney Tom Tosdal from mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial.

Well, the case apparently spoke for itself. A jury acquitted Olson in a case that even Mayor Bob Filner called “stupid” and a “waste of money,.”

goldsmithHowever, despite the national criticism of the case and the excessive number of charges, City Atty. Jan Goldsmith (left) insisted that he was protecting his community from graffiti vandalism. He does not discuss the absurd number of charges or the questionable claim of damages. There is no evidence of prosecutorial discretion or even logic in the effort to put away Olson for this simple protest.

As for Freeman and Bank of America, it is astonishing that they would want this publicity. Not a single bank official went to jail for the Bank of America’s financial dealings. They insisted that such punishment was unfair and unnecessary as their security contractor sought to pile on charges for a chalk protester objecting to those practices. BofA ended up getting a bailout for alleged foreclosure fraud and then reportedly paid no taxes on $17.2 billion in offshore earnings. However, the bank demanded that Olson be held accountable for his chalk protest on their sidewalk and a claim of $6000 in damage for chalk that was water-soluble. The only problem was not the police or the prosecutor or the judge but a jury of his peers.

Source: LA Times

33 thoughts on “California Man Chalks Up A Victory For Free Speech In Bank Of America Case”

  1. This was an easy case for a jury to decide because the act did not even in the slightest meet the statutory requirements for a conviction.

    But, I would like to say this was a case of jury nullification if I ever saw one.

  2. “Trust us” says the government whenever it asks for more power. “We’ll use this new authority wisely and only in the right situations” the government says. Cases like this are the reasons I don’t.

  3. “I would really like to understand why he was charged, in the first place, and why the judge made the rulings he did about the man’s defense.”

    I don’t have an answer as to why he was charged, other than the obvious one suggested by the communications between the DA and the Bank of America security exec–BoA didn’t like what he said about them and used their influence with the DA to have charges brought. As to why the judge made his rulings, I believe the judge is correct. Free speech is not (and should not be) a defense to vandalism. Can you imagine if it were okay to spray paint someone’s house as long as the spray painter were expressing some opinion? The only issue in his case was whether or not he committed vandalism. Free speech is not a defense. It is a routine matter for judges to bar testimony or evidence that is irrelevant, especially anything irrelevant might influence the jury.

  4. We previously discussed the case of Jeff Olson, Chalk Menace…. said by the blog’s owner, Jonathan Turley. (refer to prior comment and quote without attribution)

  5. We previously discussed the case of Jeff Olson, Chalk Menace. Olson, 40, was charged with an excessive 13 counts for writing a protest on the sidewalk in front of a Bank of America location. (“previously” is highlighted in the article above, but not here, possibly…)

    Juliet N.,

    Jonathan Turley will generally link to earlier, related postings. Here’s the link, as noted above.

    http://jonathanturley.org/2013/06/26/bank-of-america/

  6. supersonic, The “fear of mistakes” reaches all sectors of our culture, particularly, medicine. The reason is because we are a very litigious society, which has grown exponentially since the 70’s when I started working in the judicial system.

  7. Damn man, that’s all people are asking of the judges…..be right and fair and not afraid to admit a mistake.That’s the number one problem in law…the fear of admitting a mistake, which subsequently can turn into criminal acts by law enforcement.In my case, the government could have hit me with a settlement along time ago. I did something for them that they no doubt plan on using for all times to come, which helps their  future family for a monster conspiracy in Cook County.A.P.

  8. Juliet, You’re correct, look for the thread w/ the same chalk picture just a few days ago. Maybe just before you joined Turleyville.

  9. AP, That Children’s Beach seal situation has been going on for over a decade. We take visitors there to see the seals. The seal people are adamant that people not even go on the beach. A Federal judge has ruled people should be allowed access, but a rope, keeping a distance during the birthing season[Jan-March] because you know mom’s protective instincts. The yelling and screaming between the seal people and the children’s beach people is such a distraction. Understand, this is called Children’s Beach because it is a rare place where small children can swim safely. It’s a cove w/ the west[ocean waves] blocked. I think the Judge has handled this very emotional case fairly judiciously, trying to strike a balance between people and animals. you see, this group of seals just appeared about a decade ago and took over the Children’s Beach. Why..because it’s good for their children also, protecting them from predators. Filner is a seal person, big time..that’s his base. Goldsmith is from what I’ve seen, like most people, a balance person. Filner wants no people on the beach.

  10. A little background. I’ve discussed previously a young man I’ve gotten to know in San Diego who is a graffiti artist. He’s a REAL artist and picks his “canvass” in areas that are not destructive but enhances the area. He and his other underground artists deplore the destructive gang horseshit. This is a nationwide movement. Some cities have tolerated it, a few have embraced it, most consider it a nuisance and will arrest an artist if caught in progress. Then there are some cities, like San Diego, that are real tough. There are retired women who volunteer and drive around on bicycles w/ cleanup materials,removing graffiti. I’ve only seen them remove nuisance graffiti. I still want to have a cup of coffee w/ one of these women and get their perspective.

    And here’s the political end. Bob Filner is an in your face a$$hole newly elected mayor who is trying to establish the Dem party as the ruling party of a city that is pretty even Dem/Rep. City attorney Goldsmith is a Republican who is not in your face but still an a$$hole. These 2 guys clash constantly. There was recently a huge dustup about allocations of special hotel taxes to be used for advertising. Filner was wrong on that and finally backed off. Goldsmith was wrong on this and didn’t back off. Two pols in a pissing match on a daily basis. There are plenty more stories but this is a great example of the dysfunction of our duopoly.

  11. Perhaps he should have tried a small Molotov cocktail, instead of chalk?????

  12. It’s bad enough that he was charged in the first place, and it’s a relief the jury had some common sense. Other than that it is beyond bothersome that police are in this case, and too many others, allowed to act like Gestapo, compounded by yet another jurist who believes he is the God Particle (no offense intended to most jurists who actually know and practice law). One is left to wonder why the people who commit to these atrocities are allowed to continue in their profession? If they escape without consequence for their abuse and stupidity, we’ll just keep revisiting this nonsense like it’s Ground Hog Day. Might be kind of fun to let them walk in ours shoes for awhile….run them up a pole on some equally asinine ungrounded charges just to hear them wail about how unjustly they are being treated, film it, then run on YouTube. Viral!

  13. This case reminds me of how abortionist killer Paul Hill was forbidden to make a defense in his case that he was defending unborn babies from being killed. Hill had written an entire book on the subject but was not allowed to put it forward to the jury. Of course Hill’s case differs significantly from this one in that Hill killed two people, whereas in this case, it is difficult to see any lasting harm from washable chalk. Nevertheless, the similarity is that Judges sometimes rule that a defense regarding motive is forbidden to defendants. I have difficulty understanding how judges are allowed to forbid such defenses regarding motives of a person charged with crimes when motive often seems like an important aspect of the actions being punished. Fortunately for Olson, the public is already well educated about the shenanigans of big banks and the proper exercise of free speech.

  14. I would really like to understand why he was charged, in the first place, and why the judge made the rulings he did about the man’s defense. Any of you Honorable Esquires feel like playing devil’s advocate? Or if this has been discussed on another thread, before I started playing in this sandbox, you could just tell me where.

  15. “A jury acquitted Olson in a case that even Mayor Bob Filner called the case “stupid” and a “waste of money,.” ” -Jonathan Turley

    A little more about Mayor Bob Filner:

    “Filner’s background may be instructive. He was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, arrested and jailed in Mississippi. He is often distrustful of entrenched authority and large corporations.” -from the following article, repeated below

    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-chalk-verdict-20130701,0,1617754.story

    That the Bank of America contacted the city attorney’s office to reportedly urge prosecution has become part of the dispute.

    “We prosecute vandalism and theft cases regardless of who the perpetrator or victim might be,” Goldsmith said. “We don’t decide, for example, based upon whether we like or dislike banks. That would be wrong under the law.”

    Filner’s background may be instructive. He was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, arrested and jailed in Mississippi. He is often distrustful of entrenched authority and large corporations.

    Earlier this year, Filner appeared as a defense witness in the city attorney’s prosecution of a pro-seal activist for removing a sign at the Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla. The activist pleaded guilty.

    As the chalk case approached trial, Filner sent a memo to Goldsmith calling it “an abuse of power that infringes on [the] 1st Amendment.”

    At trial, however, Judge Howard Shore said Olson’s lawyer could not invoke the 1st Amendment as a defense.

    As the dispute flared between the Democratic mayor and Republican city attorney, Shore imposed a gag order on all parties. The mayor, however, would not be gagged.

    “This is a nonsense prosecution and I will continue to say that,” Filner said Friday.

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