A North Park, Calif. man may receive up to thirteen years in prison for writing anti-bank slogans outside three Bank of America branches — in sidewalk chalk. KFMB-TV reports that San Diego city attorney Jan Goldsmith has charged Jeff Olson with thirteen separate counts of vandalism, after Olson was seen on security camera footage scribbling messages on the sidewalk. Interviewed by KFMB reporter Steve Price, Olson expressed surprise at the charges and maintained that he did nothing illegal or even offensive: “I wrote ‘No thanks, big banks,” I wrote ‘Shame on Bank of America,’ . . . always on city sidewalks, washable chalk, never crude messages, never vulgar or offensive messages, clearly topical.” Other chalk phrases visible in the security-camera footage, which depicts Rogers at work in broad daylight as well as at night, include “StopBankBlight.org” and “YourBofA.com,” neither of which is a functioning website at the time of this post (although #StopBankBlight is currently an active hashtag among San Diego Twitter users, related to local protests against Bank of America’s handling of foreclosed properties).
In an interview with the San Diego Reader tabloid, Olson described the purpose of his chalk sloganeering as “trying to convince people to ditch these banks for local credit unions. I believed that was the best way to hold the executives and the corporations accountable for bringing this country to the brink of collapse.”
Olson considered his actions free speech, but Superior Court Judge Howard Shore disagreed: “In light of the fact that it’s clear from the case law that vandalism is not a legitimate exercise of free speech rights, it really is irrelevant what the message is or what the content is.” Shore will not permit the jury to consider free speech as a defense; he also placed a gag order on all parties to the case yesterday, declaring that the media had exaggerated the potential punishment facing Olson. Referencing the possible maximum sentence of thirteen years, Shore scoffed: “It’s not going to happen and I would be surprised if it ever happened to any defendant with no criminal record.”