Port Townsend free speech advocate gets more citations; now faces a misdemeanor charge in court
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Richard Erik Olson displays the two summons he received Monday for being out of compliance with the city of Port Townsendís recently approved sign code. ó Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — A free speech advocate who is testing a newly enacted city sign ordinance has received two additional citations that elevate the charge against him from a civil infraction to a misdemeanor for the repeated violation.

Richard Erik Olson, 67, who goes by the name Arhata Osho, had been issued a $100 ticket Thursday that gave him 15 days to respond, either by paying the fine or requesting an appearance in Jefferson County District Court.

Two new citations issued Monday require a court appearance.

Olson is summoned to appear at 1:15 p.m. April 14 in District Court at the Jefferson County Courthouse, 1820 Jefferson St.

“I am, whether I like it or not, a canary in the mine shaft for our First Amendment,” Olson wrote Tuesday in an email to 6th Congressional District Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.

Olson’s display, which has been located in the same spot at Pope Marine Park for more than a year, extends 50 to 60 feet across the park’s brickwork.

That violates the city’s newly enacted code — approved in February effective March 18 — that restricts such displays to a space 5 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 3 feet high.

The initial ticket did not deter him from erecting his display over the weekend, and he was cited Monday for violations that occurred that day and Sunday.

Olson, who had put up his display Tuesday, said he intended to appear in court unless an attorney advises him to delay the hearing but has no plans to discontinue his exhibit, which regularly contains about 20 handwritten whiteboards containing a variety of controversial statements, along with U.S. flags.

He said he is not currently represented by an attorney and has been so far unsuccessful in retaining representation.

After initially saying he would comply with a new ordinance, Olson reversed his position, saying he would not stop his efforts until he was dragged away.

On Monday, City Manager David Timmons said that would not occur without a direct order from a judge.

City Attorney John Watts said there is no plan in place for the issuance of any more violations.

Olson approached the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle but was told he would receive no support.

That disturbed him.

“I was shocked when I heard this. You could have knocked me over with a feather,” he said.

“It didn’t make sense to me. My whole career, I thought the ACLU was totally behind free speech, but the one in Washington isn’t. I can go around them.”

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said his organization will not get involved in the case because municipalities are within their rights to restrict the time, place and manner of speech, and such laws — like those in Port Townsend — do not interfere with free speech itself.

Honig said if Olson approaches the national ACLU office, he will most likely get the same response.

Olson had by late Tuesday not received a response from Kilmer, whose district includes the North Olympic Peninsula.

“There is a positive way for the community to benefit in many ways, including attracting more visitors who spend money,” Olson wrote the congressman, providing the Peninsula Daily News with a copy.

“Thanking you for whatever you can do to protect my continuation of 20 years in the same way I have been doing it.”

The request will be processed through Kilmer’s office system, said Jason Phelps, spokesman.

Olson said he wants to see Port Townsend become a center of free speech and hopes other protesters will join him in the park.

He also would like to see the park host a “Free Speech Festival” complete with rock bands and speeches but said he would not be the one to organize or promote such a gathering.

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 01. 2014 7:22PM
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