UPDATE: Olson continues to do his free-speech activism and has been cited twice now, with the possible penalty of a $1000 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

The free-speech activist in question is one of my oldest friends, Erik “Arhata Osho” Olson, whom I’ve known for almost 30 years. Arhata likes to occupy public spaces with big white boards full of “shock talk.” He was highly notorious on Venice Beach, California, where every once in a while he would end up in the media. One year, Olson was featured in USA Today, and he’s been on the Larry Elder show, news and other TV programs as well.

“Millions died for your right to have Free Speech–Support it and ‘Just Do It’!”

-Erik Olson aka Arhata Osho

Most of Olson’s signs start out with shocking and obnoxious headlines, designed to draw in the reader walking down the busy boardwalk in Venice, with softer comments below the initial eye-grabbing title. His sidewalk displays drew millions of readers from around the world over the many years he stood his ground at the beach. During that time, many people thanked him, but not a few verbally abused, threatened, physically attacked and/or spit on him.

Civil Rights Lawsuit

Once, Arhata was arrested for having the word “FUCK” prominently displayed on one of his boards, even though there were T-shirts for sale on the opposite side of the Venice boardwalk with the same word and worse. Olson sued the city of Los Angeles and ended up winning a significant settlement for violation of his civil rights. Unfortunately, he was felled eventually not by the LAPD but by a large brain tumor that almost killed him and that may have been exacerbated by the cell phone that used to be glued to his head.

Port Townsend

Eventually, Olson recovered well enough, after he moved back to the place where he was born: Port Townsend, Washington, a beautiful pioneer town that was part of America’s Klondike gold rush. It was at Port Townsend that the renowned American explorer and writer Jack London embarked on his Alaskan adventures.

And it was at Port Townsend that Olson took up his rabblerousing again, occupying part of a square downtown with his oft-incendiary signs, which spare no one in their “shock talk” calls to wake up and smell the roses. Unfortunately, Arhata’s “shocking” presence is disturbing some of the locals, who understandably do not want an epidemic of shouting signs to break out.

Since the city is not trying to get rid of Arhata, just to limit his excitement a bit, perhaps a semi-enclosed area should be established and considered an art gallery for this street artist who is also a free-speech and civil-rights activist. What he has to say is important, and the tradition of taking to the town square for public announcements is a long and highly American one.

An article in July’s Port Townsend Leader newspaper quoted Olson and included the following images:

“Osho, a Port Townsend resident since 2007, calls his whiteboard messages ‘Zen spiritual shock essays.’ He said when he does receive comments, they are 98 percent positive, with a few negative ones sprinkled in from week to week. He said he likes to set up the display on sunny weekends.

“‘Out here, I get a real feeling for what’s going on in the world,’ Osho said. ‘People need to wake up and open their heart[s].'”

The more recent article below quotes Olson as saying:

“There aren’t very many towns where I could do this… 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.”

The above article calls Olson “Osho,” which is rather humorous, and I hope that the city sees the humor in the situation, because there’s one thing I know well about “Arhata Osho” and that is he’s a prankster from Day One. But he does express important concepts, even if not in packages that suit everyone.

‘The city isn’t trying to shut Osho down’

The city is perplexed but not hostile, as they are not trying to run him out of town, so the council should be lauded for its restraint and civility.  Perhaps a sign would help the tourists understand they are not being accosted by a wild man from the mountains:

Pioneering Port Townsendian Art and Activism

As I say, Erik Olson was born in Port Townsend, has roots there going back over a century, including his mother’s sister, who is in her 80’s and a prominent citizen. He is a pioneering Port Townsendian and represents the best of the Western pioneers who settled this area.

“Every time I’ve ever dealt with him, he’s been very cooperative. He works with us.”

-Port Townsend police chief Conner Daily

A previous editorial in the local newspaper supported Olson’s right to public displays of speech.

Editorial: Back off on regulating public speech displays

The City of Port Townsend is facing a lot of issues these days – how to fund parks, library expansions and water systems are up for debate – so I was surprised to see the City Council take up the issue of restricting free speech displays on public sidewalks.

In case you were wondering, there hasn’t been a big increase in the number of people availing themselves of the public square to air their grievances. Buskers generally outnumber placard-carrying free speech advocates on any given summer day. In fact, there’s really only one guy the council is considering reining in. His name is Erik Olson aka Arhata Osho, and he is a current Port Townsend resident. Olson sets up white placards on easels that contain a long list of complaints and observations. While any new rules would affect everyone, he really is the target of this proposed rule making by the City Council’s Special Projects Committee. The full council could consider the issue in early July.

The proposed rule states: “The City Council determines it is appropriate to set reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, which are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest and leave open ample alternative channels for communication.”

The proposed rules of conduct state that any free speech displays or activities “shall be done in a manner that does not substantially or unduly block the free and unimpeded use of the sidewalk or streets for pedestrian or vehicular traffic.”

If I’m not mistaken, I think the police are well within their rights to ask people blocking public sidewalks or streets to please move along, so what’s the problem here?

Police Chief Conner Daily said Olson is very cooperative and open. “Every time I’ve ever dealt with him, he’s been very cooperative. He works with us,” Daily said.

Rules could always be clearer, I suppose, but if what we really need is an ordinance saying people can’t block sidewalks or streets, why does free speech even enter in to the discussion? A little jazz band might really tie up pedestrian access. What about clothes racks?

My suspicion is no one is really concerned about blocking sidewalks. Olson hasn’t done that. I’ve been able to walk right by his displays without a problem. So what rules could the city possibly adopt that would make things better?

Olson’s displays, the Libertarians at the post office, petition gatherers outside the Co-op – all of these people form the fabric of our public life. We seem to be getting along OK without regulating these activities, and I have complete faith that the local police force has the requisite authority to open public thoroughfares if they are blocked by someone.

Sometimes doing nothing is the wisest alternative. I think this might be one of those times.

Further Reading

Arhata Osho’s Shock Talk
Local Newspaper Supports Arhata’s Right of Free Speech Displays
City moves ahead with sidewalk display rules
Erik Olson on Facebook
Port Townsend free speech advocate cited for display
Free speech advocate headed to court
Contact: arhataworldfreespeech@yahoo.co.uk