A jury on Monday acquitted Jeff Olson, 40, of vandalism for chalking anti-bank slogans on San Diego sidewalks. That was a swift verdict on a prosecution the city’s own mayor said was “stupid.”
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith prosecuted Olson for last year scrawling with water-soluble chalk messages including: “Shame on B of A,” and '“No thanks, big banks.” He also depicted an octopus reaching for dollar bills on the sidewalks in front of Bank of America branches. The 13 counts of vandalism could have sent Olson to jail for 13 years—one year for each misdemeanor charge—and brought a $13,000 fine.
The San Diego Superior Court jury deliberated five hours after a four-day trial that pitted Mayor Bob Filner against Goldsmith. Jail time is highly unusual for graffiti convictions, which typically result in fines or community service. Even Judge Howard Shore said some media groups exaggerated the possibility of Olson receiving jail time, since Olson had no criminal record, reported the San Diego Reader.
“It’s washable chalk, it’s political slogans,” Filner said last week. “We’re not even responding to the public’s complaint. ... I think it’s a stupid case. It’s costing us money.”
Shore, who imposed a gag order keeping participants in the trial from talking to the media, refused to allow Olson’s attorney to argue that the Constitution protected the messages as free speech. Instead, the attorney argued that the messages caused no damage and Olson didn’t doodle out of malice.
According to the San Diego Reader, the Occupy Wall Street movement inspired Olson to write the messages. He started by waving signs in front of banks and handing out leaflets. When he stumbled upon some sidewalk chalk at a local drug store, the idea to sketch messages struck him. Olson stopped leaving anti-bank messages like “Stop big banks,” and “StopBankBlight.com” when he joined then-Congressman Filner’s campaign for San Diego mayor in August.
This case is the latest tiff between San Diego’s mayor and the elected city attorney. Filner, who last month used his veto power to cut $500,000 from the city attorney’s budget, crashed a Goldsmith news conference in February amid a dispute over how to spend money to promote tourism. Filner accused the city attorney of “unethical and unprofessional conduct,” saying he was giving legal advice through news media.
Despite his acquittal, Olson said he isn't planning more sidewalk scrawls: "I'm going to think of a more creative way to get my message across.”