Protect Free Speech: Don’t Send Activist to Jail for Chalk ‘Vandalism’


Target:  Jan Goldsmith, San Diego City Attorney

Goal: Reduce charges, sentencing, and fines against Jeff Olson and allow free political speech to be mentioned in his defense

Jeff Olson, a 41-year-old political activist and former staffer for a Senator in Washington, was charged with 13 counts of vandalism for writing messages in water soluble chalk on the sidewalks outside of three Bank Of America branches in San Diego. If convicted, Olson faces 13 years in prison.  The messages he wrote were political in nature and spoke out against financial corruption.  Bank Of America claims it cost six thousand dollars to clean up Olson’s chalk messages, but San Diego offers businesses taxpayer funded graffiti removal services. The chalk in question was also washable, impermanent, and free of hazardous materials.

In a recent press conference, Olson credited the Occupy movement with inspiring him to “convince people to ditch their banks for  credit unions” and to “hold the executives at the corporations responsible for bringing [America] to the point of collapse.” Prior to writing the chalk messages, he held signs and passed out leaflets in front of Bank Of America branches.  According to Olson, former police officer Darrell Freeman, Bank Of America’s President of Global Security, pressured him to stop protesting by threatening to have his own credit union at California Coast cancelled with “one phone call.” In order to avoid such threats, Olson decided to shift to a more “non violent, non destructive” method of protest by writing messages of protest such as “Stop Big Banks” and “Stop” in chalk outside of three Bank Of America locations. Darrell Freeman has aggressively pressured the city of San Diego to press charges against Olson. If Olson is convicted and sentenced to a full 13 years of imprisonment, this will cost San Diego over half a million dollars.   Should taxpayers really be forced to pay that amount to punish a man for exercising his right to free speech?

Furthermore, Olson is not even allowed to invoke the first amendment in his own defense.  According to the San Diego Reader, Olson has been barred from “mentioning the first amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech” during his trial.   This injunction is censorship masquerading as due process.  Tell the city of San Diego to reduce the charges and to allow Jeff Olson free reference to the Constitution in his defense.


Dear Jan Goldsmith, San Diego City Attorney,

This week you will be prosecuting Jeff Olson for 13 counts of vandalism against Bank Of America. We urge you to reconsider the decision to bar Olson from mentioning political speech and the first amendment in his own defense. Olson’s chalk messages were, in fact, political; Americans have a right to exercise free speech and to speak out when they believe their rights are being violated. Olson saw his fellow citizens being taken advantage of by Bank Of America and by other predatory financial institutions. He believed that by using washable chalk and by writing his messages on the sidewalk outside of the bank branches, he was engaging in a “non-violent and non-destructive” form of political protest.

By stopping Olson from mentioning politics, activism, or free speech during the course of his trial, you are effectively silencing and censoring his defense. Furthermore, by seeking a sentence of 13 years, you are engaging in unduly harsh and punitive measures against a man whose actions have literally caused no harm. You claim that Olson’s chalk messages “circumvent rules under cover of night under a banner of first amendment rights”, and that the resulting cleanup from Olson’s actions came at cost to taxpayers. This is untrue; Bank Of America, although entitled to free graffiti removal services from the City, claimed to have paid over a thousand dollars in cleanup fees.  If the City is so concerned about saving taxpayers money, why seek 13 years in prison for Jeff Olson’s relatively innocuous actions?  13 years imprisonment will cost San Diego over half a million dollars. If, as the San Diego Reader claims, the charges of vandalism and excessive sentence recommendation came only after “aggressive pressure” from Global Security Chief of Bank of America Darrell Freeman, then it seems as though both yourself and the City of San Diego value corporations over actual human lives.  Reduce the charges against Jeff Olson and allow him to invoke free speech and politics in his defense.


[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: coolcaesar via Wikimedia Commons

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