One man's free speech is another's obstruction: Port Townsend weighs limits on sign poster at Pope Marine Park

By Charlie Bermant and Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — Complaints about a bevy of whiteboards set up at Pope Marine Park proclaiming messages on politics and other topics have prompted City Council members to consider new ordinances regulating the placement of such signs.

The man who operates the display calls the city proposal “censorship” and thinks it should be expanded rather than restricted.

“There aren't very many towns where I could do this,” said Arhata Osho, 64, who regularly displays about 20 handwritten whiteboards containing a variety of controversial statements, along with U.S. flags.

“I think that the city should be very excited that I'm doing this here because this is the largest free-speech display in the country.

“They could put a sign at the edge of Pope Marine Park that says 'Free Speech Park,' and it would be like Hyde Park in London.”

Osho's assertion that he has the largest free-speech display in the country is anecdotal. He hasn't heard of any other displays and is always being told by visitors that their towns would never tolerate such a display.

The city isn't trying to shut Osho down. Rather, it seeks to limit the space he uses so it doesn't get in the way of foot traffic patterns or cause a significant distraction.

City Council members voted 5-1 at their July 15 meeting, with Councilman Robert Gray opposed, to conduct a first reading of two ordinances that would regulate the placing of signs, free-speech displays and other structures in city parks and on sidewalks.

City Manager David Timmons said council members likely will take up the ordinances for potential final approval at their Aug. 5 meeting.

Timmons said complaints to City Hall about Osho prompted discussion of broader city ordinances dealing with signs in city parks and on city sidewalks.

“The complaints that we're receiving have little to do with what he's saying,” Timmons said.

“The vast majority are in terms of how much space he's occupying.”

Timmons said people often stop in the middle of the street to look at Osho's signs or take a picture, and that can cause a traffic problem.

Port Townsend police spokesman Luke Bogues has observed these situations and said they are not necessarily Osho's responsibility.

“The complaints we get aren't about the man himself but about the people who are responding to him or gathering around him,” Bogues said.

“Whenever we've talked with him, he's been very responsive and helpful, and when people are standing in the middle of the road taking his picture, we've asked him to shout out to them and get them out of the street.”

The proposed ordinances, developed through the City Council's Special Projects Committee, would limit signs from being placed in the way of crosswalks or sidewalk bulb-outs and would require there be 4 feet of open space on a sidewalk to comply with standards set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Timmons said these regulations are designed in part to make sure pedestrians can safely walk across crosswalks and visitors can get into and out of their cars without hitting a sidewalk sign.

During a July 15 City Council meeting, Councilwoman Michelle Sandoval, chair of the Special Projects Committee, said the committee thought it best to avoid trying to regulate any aspects other than the placement of signs or free-speech displays on city sidewalks and in parks, and wanted to be “as least restrictive as possible.”

The ordinances also would allow police to issue citations to individuals who do not comply with the placement rules, though a verbal warning must be given first.

Although Osho criticizes the city proposal, he intends to follow the letter of any law that is passed, he said.

Osho's real name is Erik Olson, but he changed it after a 17-year career on Wall Street because “I wanted to get away from the Wall Street mentality.”

He 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 moved to Port Townsend in 2007 because of its open-mindedness and, for what he wanted to do, good weather and large numbers of people who pass through, he said.

He said his selection of Port Townsend had nothing to do with the fact that he was born in the town. His mother took him to another location when he was 3 months old.

This connection has helped in at least one aspect of his operation, as the American Legion has allowed him to store his signs at the hall because his aunt, Emily Anderson, was a former director.

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.”

Osho said the purpose of the signs is to provoke discussion and cause controversy.

He said people who disagree with him may attempt to edit or change the signs, but he gets positive feedback “from 98 out of 100 people who pass by.”

“I think the council is being shortsighted,” Osho said of the proposed regulation.

“They should be happy that I'm here. They should be happy they were picked and should buy me a new flag at the very least.”

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



Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074 or jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 27. 2013 6:35PM
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