Human Rights

Facing 13 Years in Prison for Denouncing the Bank Bailouts—Using Kids' Chalk?

The ruling judge has stripped the defendant of his First Amendment rights.

Using kids' sidewalk chalk, Jeff Olson scrawled his frustration with the Wall Street bailout of big banks outside three Bank of America buildings in his home town of San Diego last year. Bank of America received $45 billion in interest-free loans from the US government in 2008 and 2009—one of many conglomerate mega banks in the U.S.. to receive massive government handouts.

Even though the chalk Olson used was water soluble and could easily be washed away, the 40-year-old Calif. resident is now standing trial for 13 counts of vandalism—meaning a potential 13-year jail sentence and $13,000 in fines.

During the first day of the trial on June 25, Superior Court Judge Howard M. Shore ruled out Olson’s First Amendment rights—even though they are fundamentally protected under the U.S.. Constitution.

The judge prohibited Olson's attorney from even talking about the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech throughout the trial, citing the fact that the state’s Vandalism Statute does not explicitly mention First Amendment rights.

Outside of the courtroom, Olson’s attorney Tom Tosdal said to The San Diego Reader,  "I've never heard that before, that a court can prohibit an argument of first amendment rights."

Similar to the Occupy Wall Street and Bank Transfer Day movements, Olsen and his partner have actively encouraged people to move their money from big corporate banks to local nonprofit, community credit unions since 2011, reported The Reader, which  first broke news of the case on June 23.

Darrell Freeman—B of A’s Global Corporate Security vice president—accused Olson and his partner of “running a business” outside of Bank of America when they held a protest in support of a Nov. 5, 2012 worldwide Bank Transfer Day effort. Freeman pressured San Diego city attorneys to bring charges against Olson until they announced plans to do so in April, TheReader reports.

When she received a prosecution referral from the city’s gang crimes unit—of all units—Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard called Olson to inform him of the charges.

Olson told KGTV that one of the Bank of America branches claims it cost them $6,000 to clean up the water-soluble chalk messages. 

San Diego’s mayor, Bob Filner, called the trial “a misuse and waste of taxpayer money” in a June 20 memo to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.

He wrote: “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." 

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April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.