Port Townsend free speech advocate cited for display
Richard Erik Olson, who was cited recently for noncompliance with Port Townsend’s new sign code, continued his displays over the weekend. — Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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Richard Erik Olson, 67, who goes by the name Arhata Osho, was issued the $100 citation last week and has 15 days to respond, either by paying the fine or requesting an appearance in District Court.
On Friday, Olson said he had not decided his strategy but will not pay the fine issued Thursday and has no plans to discontinue his display, which regularly contains about 20 handwritten whiteboards containing a variety of controversial statements, along with U.S. flags.
The display was still in place as of Sunday afternoon and further citations had not been issued.
It also extends 50 or 60 feet across the park’s brickwork, a violation of the city’s newly enacted code that restricts such displays to a space 5 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 3 feet high.
The code change was approved in February and went into effect March 18.
The summons was issued by Port Townsend Police Sgt. Troy Surber at 3:35 p.m. Thursday, two hours after Surber informed Olson he would receive the summons if he did not move.
Olson did not move, and instead contacted reporters from the Port Townsend-Jefferson County Leader, who documented the incident.
City Attorney John Watts said he hoped Olson would comply with the summons and conform to the code, which Olson said he will not do.
“I am not going to bend,” Olson said.
“I have been doing this for 20 years. If I stop because of this, my life will have been a waste, and I might as well just kill myself.”
If Olson is cited again — regardless of if he pays the fine or does not — he could be cited for a misdemeanor offense, Watts said.
If he does not pay the fine, it will increase to $300, according to the citation.
It is currently a civil matter, Watts said.
A misdemeanor charge elevates the matter to a criminal offense.
Olson said the city should welcome his presence and celebrate his efforts on behalf of free speech rather than try to suppress him.
“Port Townsend has more than enough space and should be proud and honored to have the largest free speech display I’ve ever heard about on Earth,” Olson said.
Olson changed his name to Osho after a 17-year career on Wall Street and began displaying signs on Southern California beaches in 1994.
Two years later, he had about 20 signs in his display. His collection has since grown to 40, but he usually uses about 20 at a time.
He finances the operation with a combination of disability checks and profits from a meditation center he operates in Port Townsend.
He said he moved to Port Townsend in 2007 because of its open-mindedness and good weather for what he wanted to do, with large numbers of people who pass through.
He handwrites the signs in magic marker, but the messages originate on his computer and are viewable on his blog, www.arhataosho.com, which touts “spiritual free speech.”
Olson said the purpose of the signs is to provoke discussion and cause controversy.
He said he has not yet contacted a lawyer to help with his case.
“His rights are not being abridged,” Watts said. “The right to freedom of speech or any other right is balanced in favor of public safety.”
There is no strategy in place to deal with Olson if he does not comply or pay the fine, according to Port Townsend Police Officer Patrick Fudally, the department’s spokesman.
“It’s up to him what happens next,” Watts said.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: March 30. 2014 6:32PM