Earth Day turns 45 years old this week. Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.
By day, Kevin Egler is a substitute teacher in Kent, Ohio. By night, he puts up posters at busy intersections and over highways. He is part of a group called Freeway Bloggers. Go to www.freewayblogger.com. The motto of the website is "Free Speech: Use It or Lose It." Egler was arrested on July 25 and ticketed for "advertising on public property." The city dropped that charge and now is going after him for littering. I posted an item about his case a few days ago. Here now is his story, as he gave it to me in a phone interview on August 16.
In October of last year, I decided to take up a project called freeway blogging. I had gone to peace rallies, I'd written letters to all my elected representatives, and I just didn't see that it was doing much good.
I can't idly sit by as the slaughter of innocent people goes on. The estimated casualties in Iraq now total more than 1 million. Proportionally, that would be like 11 million people here dying. I had to do everything in my power to do something about it.
The only way we're going to end this war is through impeachment, and there's plenty of cause there. The Downing Street Memos show that diplomacy was a lie; Bush was dead-set on going to war. Then there's the out and out disregard for civil liberties: They can listen in to our phone calls, take our e-mails, freeze our assets.
I love this country. So I had to do something. This seemed like a good, inexpensive way to get the word out and influence people.
Over the last ten months, with a few friends, I've put up about 450 sign all over Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and a little part of West Virginia. What we like to do the most is overpasses over major freeways. We put up our signs during the wee hours of the morning so they are there for the morning rush hour.
But what I got in trouble for wasn't a large "Impeach Bush" sign over a freeway. It was actually a yard sign much like you would see at any election time, about two feet by two and a half feet.
It was 1:09 a.m. when I was pulled over by Officer Jerry Schlosser of the Kent Police Department. I had just put a sign up at an intersection where three roads come together: in the grassy area where Main St and Willow Street and Haymaker Parkway meet.
I was only out of the van for less than 5 seconds, but as soon as we got through that intersection my driver said there's a cop behind us.
The cop followed us for probably a half mile, and then pulled us over. He kind of ignored the driver, looked back at me, and said something like, "What are you doing? Putting up ‘Impeach Bush' signs tonight?"
So I said, "Well, yeah." I'm not going to lie to him.
He said, something to the effect: "Don't you know that's littering?"
I said, "No, it's my guaranteed right of free political speech."
He didn't seem real impressed with my answer. So he took my driver's license and went back to his cruiser to run a check on me. The last time I was in trouble in Portage County was a speeding ticket in 1995. I'm a law-abiding citizen.
When he came back up to the van, he asked me, "Why don't you put these in your own yard?"
And I said, "Well, it's public property. As a taxpayer of this city, it kind of is my yard."
I said, "Can I ask you a question?"
"What's the difference between the kind of sign I put up and a sign a realtor would put up saying, House for Sale, this direction?"
"You don't know the difference between those two?"
"No sir, I don't."
And I'm still waiting for an answer to that one. I think political speech should be more protected than commercial speech.
At that point, he says, "I have all your information. I'll be issuing a summons at a later time."
When we parted, I said, "Have a good night."
Two days later, 6:00 am, I get a knock on the door. It's Officer Schlosser. He explained that I was violating a Kent ordinance against advertising on public property.
I had an arraignment date for August 1.
I had four protesters there with me. They were wearing T-shirts that said "Impeach Bush" or "Honk for Peace" or "Got Fascism?"
I was wearing a shirt with a Plato quote on it: "The price good people pay for their indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."
When it came my turn, I approached the bench. Judge Plough asked for my plea. I said, "Not guilty."
He set a pretrial date for August 9, and a trial date for August 16.
So I got legal representation: Bob Fitrakis. He's a great guy. I told him the whole story.
As soon as we got to the courthouse on August 9, the city law director, Jim Silver, talked to Bob in private. And Bob came back and told me: "Well, they're offering you a deal. They're going to drop the advertising on public property charge no matter what. Your options are to either plead guilty to disorderly conduct, pay a $25 fine, and it's over and done, or they're going to refile a littering charge against you."
The advertising on public property charge was considered a minor misdemeanor. Maximum fine: $125, including court costs. The littering charge was more serious: a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable up to $500 and 60 days in jail.
So I asked Bob, "What should we do?"
Bob said, "No, what do you want to do?"
I said, "I feel like I'm not guilty of any crime. I'd like to fight it."
He was with me on that. So we decided to not bite on the deal they were offering.
Free political speech is free political speech, and I don't care what charge they put against me, I want to stand up for the First Amendment.
I will be arraigned on September 6, and I will plead not guilty again.