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Bremerton chalking starts free speech controversy
Amy Hordon paused a moment on Sunday afternoon, her head tilted to the side as she studied words written on the sidewalk in blue chalk.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Crouched on the corner of Burwell Street and Washington Avenue in Downtown Bremerton on Aug. 19, she placed a few final touches on the rendering of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote them in support of Taylor Niemy, a young man who believes his civil liberties have been violated by the city of Bremerton.
Niemy was stopped on July 27 by a Bremerton Police while creating “chalk art.” City officials labeled his work as graffiti.
A resident of Seattle, Niemy said he had written a set of 23 grievances from the Declaration of the Occupation of New York, a document from the occupy movements that flourished last year, when an officer stopped him.
Niemy stopped writing at the officer’s order and the officer took his personal information and told him he would receive a citation in the mail.
“I feel that them telling me I can’t do this is a violation of my free speech rights,” Niemy said. “I don’t think this is vandalism in any way.”
Later the same afternoon a Bremerton fire truck arrived downtown and firefighters washed the chalk away.
In response to the incident, Niemy said he created a Facebook page proposing a “Chalk Up Bremerton Day.”
Dozens of supporters from children to grandparents turned up Sunday in support of Niemy’s cause. They drew and wrote on the sidewalk between First Street and Burwell Street on Washington Avenue in downtown Bremerton.
Among the chalk renderings were pastel colored hearts and flowers, peace symbols and hopscotch boards. There were also multiple renderings of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and statements such as “end the war now.”
Maria T and her daughter Lucianna, who did not want their last names used for fear of getting a ticket from the city, said they attended because they wanted to support Niemy.
“It is just so silly that we are at that point in the world that we are worried about people drawing on the sidewalk with chalk,” Maria T said.
Lucianna, 5, said she just enjoys drawing on the sidewalk.
“I just like doing the chalk art,” she said.
Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent said the chalk defaced city property and gave visitors and residents a bad image of the city.
“With our new streets and sidewalks and new look, we are trying to keep the city as clean as we can,” Lent said. “We have had 86 complaints since January with people complaining about graffiti.”
Niemy said he had approached the city council on the matter trying to ease restrictions on graffiti ordinances.
On several occasions during neighborhood festivals in places such as Union Hill chalk art in the streets has gone on. On one occasion in 2011 the artwork was done in Lent’s presence.
Bremerton City Councilman Jim McDonald said he met with Niemy to discuss the issue, but they couldn’t agree on the issue.
“I told him he was defacing public property,” McDonald said. “He was a very intelligent guy and we didn’t argue. We just didn’t agree on that topic.”
Niemy said, in time, chalk is easily removed by weather and normal conditions and did not constitute graffiti.
“To me, if it requires the attention of somebody else to take it off then it could be considered vandalism,” Niemy said. “But if the rain or normal foot traffic will take it off then it shouldn’t be considered vandalism.”
McDonald said the timeframe was not a defining factor in labeling the chalk renderings as graffiti.
“It doesn’t matter if it would wash away at some point of time,” McDonald said. “It is just a matter of degree in the time frame it is gone.”
Lent said Niemy would not receive a citation from the city and the city had offered Niemy an event permit for “Chalk Up Bremerton Day.”
Niemy said he did not accept the offer because he found it to be a contradiction in terms.
“A permit is $100 and you have to buy insurance on top of that,” Niemy said. “For me, to pay for free speech is a contradiction within itself.”
Jim Anderson, who said he happened to be passing through downtown Sunday afternoon, said he saw no problem with the chalk and thought it was a matter of free expression.
“I am a firm supporter of what they are doing,” he said. “That is what life is all about building community and building communications between generations and among people and getting conversations going.”
Devonne Wells, another passerby, said she had seen graffiti spray painted along the Bremerton boardwalk and wondered if the chalk renderings might lead to further graffiti.
“I have no objection to the chalk. I think they are speaking their minds and expressing themselves,” Wells said. “I do think you might open the door to other graffiti by doing something like this, though.”
Niemy said he had no intention of stopping. He said he planned to continue to hold the events once a month.
“I am just going to continue to do this.” He said. “I am going to continue to talk with the city council and get them to redefine what constitutes vandalism in Bremerton.”
McDonald said city officials have no intention of changing the codes. He said the chalk renderings moved beyond free expression by defacing shared property.
“I understand he sees it as a free speech issue,” he said. “But it is not his sidewalk it is everyone’s sidewalk. There are plenty of other ways he can express himself.”