Port Townsend free speech advocate back in court; agrees to abide by displays law
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Richard Erik Olson, left, confers with his attorney, Bret Roberts, outside of Jefferson County District Court on Wednesday. — Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — A man charged with violating the city’s ordinance limiting the size of free speech displays has again agreed to comply with the law, two weeks after receiving two citations for going beyond the proscribed limit.

On Wednesday, Richard Erik Olson, who goes by the name Arhata Osho, told Jefferson County District Court Judge Jill Landes that he would comply with the limit until his trial date, which Landes set for Sept. 25.

Olson’s display, which has been located in the same spot at Pope Marine Park for more than a year, extended 50-60 feet across the park’s brickwork before the new Port Townsend city code became effective March 18.

His signs — which bear such messages as “Use your citizen’s right of free speech” and “All religions are myths” — are intended to provoke discussion, Olson said.

In an April court appearance, Olson agreed to stay within the city’s limits for displays, set at 72 inches long and 48 inches wide.

On June 18, Olson, 70, was cited for exceeding that limit by extending the display to 96 inches long and 50 inches wide.

Landes had released Olson on his own recognizance and without any bail requirement as long as he agreed to stay within the limits.

Since he did not do so, City Prosecuting Attorney Johanna Vanderlee asked Landes to take Olson into custody and not release him until he’d paid a $2,000 bail.

“I appreciate and applaud Mr. Olson’s efforts on behalf of free speech,” Vanderlee said.

“But everyone who comes onto the city has the right to access the sidewalks, and his occupation of this space is a violation of code.

“He has willfully committed these violations and doesn’t have any desire to comply, so a $2,000 bail is in order.”

Landes declined to take Olson into custody, exacting a promise from him to comply in the future.

“You made an agreement which was a condition of your release,” she said.

“You need to comply with the law, whether you agree that it is constitutional or not, and you put me in the position of having to put bail on you if you do not follow the law.”

Port Townsend Police Officer Jeremy Vergin, who issued the June 18 citation after a warning earlier in the day from code enforcement volunteer Jerry Spiekerman, said that while he was measuring the display, Olson deliberately moved a sign that extended its footprint.

Vergin characterized his conversation with Olson as cordial but described Olson’s actions as “an effort to not comply” with the city code.

Bret Roberts, Olson’s attorney, said he plans to file a motion challenging the constituionality of the city’s sidewalk ordinance, which Landes set for Aug. 8.

Olson said that he would have complied with the ordinance if the officers had been more polite.

“They came up to me and it sent me into shock,” Olson said.

“I didn’t know they were going to measure it by inches.

“I will comply with this so I am within the limits, but in my world that I live in the matter of a few inches is ridiculous.”

Olson has said the new ordinance is directed only at him and restricts his free speech.

City officals have said that the ordinance is necessary to protect the free speech of others and provide a clear right of way through the downtown area.

Olson was first cited with a $100 ticket on March 27. He continued to display his signs and was given two additional citations on March 30 and March 31, elevating it to a misdemeanor charge and compelling a court appearance.

Pretrial hearings led to two continuances, during which time Olson complied with the ordinance until the June 18 violation.

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

Last modified: July 02. 2014 8:12PM
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