American Elephants

More Incidents on the Free Speech Front by The Elephant's Child

—Jeff Olson is a 40-year-old man who was being prosecuted for scrawling anti-megabank messages on the sidewalk in water-soluble chalk faced a 13 year sentence. A judge had barred his attorney from mentioning freedom of speech during the trial. The San Diego Reader reported that a judge had opted to prevent Olson’s attorney from”mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial.”

Olson faced 13 counts of vandalism. In addition to possibly spending years in jail, Olson would also be held liable for fines of up to $13,000 over the anti-big-bank slogans that were left in washable children’s chalk on a sidewalk outside of three San Diego, California branches of Bank of America, the massive conglomerate that received $45 billion in interest-free loans from the federal government in 2008-2009 in a bid to keep it solvent in the financial crisis.

Olson was a former staffer for a Washington State senator, and involved himself in political activism inspired by the Occupy Wall Street  protest regarding debit card fees. He scribbled slogans such as “Stop Big Banks” and “Stop Bank” One Bank of America branch claimed it had cost $6,000 to clean up the washable chalk.

Darrell Freeman, Vice President of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security, and a former police officer, decided to take Olson and his friend on.  He threatened them with “running a business outside of the bank,”and when that didn’t work pressured members of San Diego’s Gang Unit on behalf of Bank of America, until the matter was forwarded to the City Attorney’s Office.

Olson did not deny that he scrawled anti-bank messages and artwork outside the banks last year, such as “No thanks, big banks” and Shame on Bank of America.”

His attorney argued that vandalism law required jurors to find something was “maliciously defaced.” He added, “His purpose was not malicious. His purpose was to inform.

The mayor condemned the City Attorney’s Office, calling it a waste of time. Defense attorney Tom Tosdal said it was an “enormous waste of public resources.” He said bank officials demanded the prosecution because they didn’t like his client’s message. The jury agreed and  acquitted Olson.

The judge forbade any mention of freedom of speech or the First Amendment? Wow.

—In West Virginia, a 14-year-old student wore a National Rifle Association tee shirt to school. Uh Oh! His teacher demanded that he remove it, and he refused. Jared Marcum, 14, was charged with obstruction following the April 18 incident after police were called to Logan Middle School. Police said he wouldn’t stop talking. After he was charged, Marcum faced up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.

Ben White, the Marcum family attorney, claimed the demand that he remove the NRA shirt violated his right to freedom of speech. Logan County Circuit Court Judge Eric O’Briant signed an order dismissing the charge.

After Marcum was arrested, students throughout Logan County wore similar NRA shirts in a show of solidarity. Prosecutors sought to have a gag order imposed on Marcum and his family. After reviewing statements from the arresting officer and the school principal, White said he and a prosecutor agreed that creating a criminal record for the 14-year-old boy was not a good idea. Annoying a prosecutor is apparently not a good idea.

—The BBC headline ran “U.S. Bloggers Banned From Entering the UK.” “Bloggers” Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer were denied entry to the country that gave the world the Magna Charta. Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer are both prominent critics of Islamism — the strand of militant Islam that attempts to spread the intolerant ideology of Islam throughout the West through the imposition of sharia.

What Geller and Spencer do is speak. They give lectures, they write books. They were traveling to Britain to participate in a commemorative ceremony for Drummer Lee Rigby, the young soldier who was returning to his barracks when two Muslims ran him down with a car, then stabbed and hacked him to death with knives and a cleaver. Rigby had to be identified with dental records.

Geller and Spencer speak about the intolerance of Islam and the requirements of sharia. A government spokesman said individuals whose presence “is not conducive to the public good” may be denied entry by the Home Secretary. He explained: “We condemn all those whose behaviors and views run counter to our shared values and will not stand for extremism in any form.” We’re trying to be very tolerant, don’t be disagreeing with us or disturbing our fantasies.

Another few incidents in today’s world where freedom of speech means being very, very careful what you say. How did we get here?

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