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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ferry County agrees to pay $165,000 to woman in sidewalk chalk First Amendment case

A photograph of a message written in sidewalk chalk outside the public meeting room of the Ferry County commissioners in February 2018. The author, Jaina Bledsoe, was charged with malicious mischief for the message, prompted by public comments of Commissioner Michael Blankenship about a nonmotorized trail plan.   (U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington case files)

Ferry County has paid $165,000 to a woman arrested after she wrote messages in chalk on the sidewalk ahead of a public meeting in February 2018.

Jaina Bledsoe sued Ferry County and several county officials in federal court in July 2019, alleging violation of her civil rights and malicious prosecution after she was charged with malicious mischief by the Ferry County Prosecutor’s Office. That criminal charge was dismissed, and Bledsoe told U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson that commissioners pushed for the maximum penalty after Bledsoe took previous actions to criticize lawmakers, specifically County Commissioner Michael Blankenship, for public statements targeting those in favor of a nonmotorized trail.

“I think the chalk is fairly well benign compared to some other things that are First Amendment-protected,” Bledsoe said. “It feels good that the federal court stepped in and told the board of county commissioners, you all need to correct yourselves.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, Blankenship declined to comment on the settlement agreement. He did not run for re-election in 2020. Reached by phone on Wednesday, Commissioner Nathan Davis said he would have pushed to continue pursuing the issue in appellate court, but that the decision to settle was ultimately made by the county’s insurance provider.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” Davis said of the initial decision to call police following the chalk incident. He said there had been increasing agitation in the community, and commissioners had a duty to protect their staff. 

The third county commissioner in office, Johnna Exner, was dismissed from the lawsuit in January 2020. Like Blankenship, she did not run for re-election last year.

Bledsoe’s chalk messages were a response to public statements made by Blankenship calling those in support of the nonmotorized trail “sheep” and “jackasses.” Bledsoe, in October 2017, had delivered a shepherd’s crook to the commissioner’s office with a handwritten note for Blankenship. Five months later, she wrote on the sidewalk leading to the public meeting room informing attendees “You are not sheep” and “You are not jackasses,” messages that were erased before the public showed up to the meeting.

A clerk for the board noticed the messages and called police based on the “consensus of the board,” according to court records. Blankenship said in a deposition that the office was worried about “escalation” and potential threats to county employees.

Prosecutors filed a charge of malicious mischief in district court, an offense that requires “physical damage to the property of another” or that the person “writes, paints, or draws any inscription, figure, or mark of any type on any public or private building” without permission, according to state law.

That case was dismissed by the judge, who found insufficient evidence of a crime occurring.

“All of this is to say this is not about chalk. This is about a personal dislike for a citizen of Ferry County,” Ferry County District Judge Thomas Brown wrote in his order dismissing the criminal case in August 2018.

Bledsoe said she had to remain in Ferry County to resolve the case, preventing her from visiting her dying mother in Portland.

Peterson found that Bledsoe’s messages were protected speech under the First Amendment, noting that chalk writing is “distinguishable from physically vandalizing or physically damaging property.” She also wrote in an order in October that it was clear from the evidence commissioners singled out Bledsoe’s messages for prosecution, while other messages written in chalk in the community had not resulted in criminal charges.

The county had appealed that ruling from Peterson, but the settlement agreement signed in late December called for the federal case to be dismissed entirely.

The settlement agreement also requires Ferry County to establish “a policy on the civility of public officials and other participants in public meetings.” That provision is even more important than the financial settlement, Bledsoe said.

“The thing that makes me most proud about the whole affair is there’s going to be accountability for this whole board of county commissioners,” Bledsoe said.

Andrew Biviano, the Spokane-based attorney who represented Bledsoe in court, said he was also in discussions with state lawmakers to introduce legislation that would exempt messages written in chalk from the malicious mischief statute. If the law were indiscriminately applied as written, he argued, children playing hopscotch could open themselves to the same prosecution as Bledsoe.

It would also resolve a conflict that reared its head in Washington state earlier this year, when children writing messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in the town of Selah had their creations removed and were threatened with legal action.

Bledsoe said the federal court sent a message that should empower further political speech.

“They don’t have to tolerate being bullied from people they pay salary to,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from Commissioner Nathan Davis and to correct the spelling of his last name.