PALMER — In a brief, orderly trial, Sidney Hill — famous locally for the large anti-Obama sign he holds on a street corner most days — has been found not guilty of assault.
Hill had been charged in 2010 after teachers leading a group of special education students through downtown Palmer across the Glenn Highway said he accosted them, using slurs against the mentally handicapped. Hill, meanwhile, said he was the one accosted, that one of the teachers yelled at him, tried to incite the student to do the same, then shook his sign, hurting his back.
On Wednesday, a seven-member jury decided that whatever happened there, it didn’t add up to assault or harassment on Hill’s part. The assault count he faced related to causing fear, possibly relating to when, according to a teacher, Hill threatened to punch him.
“I put a lot of faith in the criminal justice system and in juries, and if a jury consisting of the community determined it wasn’t criminal and it wasn’t a criminal offense, I can accept that,” said Chris Orman, who prosecuted the case.
He said the case wasn’t the strongest, but it was one that couldn’t have ended with a plea agreement or a dismissal. Members of the public felt wronged by Hill, and Hill was not accepting any plea deals.
Hill and his “Impeach Obama Now” sign have been regular fixtures, mostly at the Parks Highway/Palmer-Wasilla Highway intersection, for the bulk of Obama’s term in office. He was briefly famous on YouTube for a video in which Alaska State Fair security forcibly removed him from the fairgrounds for trespassing on private property.
His trouble with the fair isn’t just a thing of the past, though. A pending case from this summer charges him with trespassing after Palmer police officers found him back on the fairgrounds.
“I paced him in escort position and asked him to walk to security. Hill was yelling at me calling me names,” Sgt. Kelly Turney wrote in documents filed in that case. “Hill stated that he did not recognize my authority.”
Though other accounts have him yelling at people and calling names, Orman said that as far as the trial went, Hill was a model defendant.
“I think Mr. Hill as a whole was a gentleman and really understood the situation,” Orman said.
He noted that it was a strange time to have brought the case to trial, given that Hill is famous for holding an anti-Obama sign and that week was the week directly following the election in which Obama won a second term.
“It probably wasn’t the best idea by me to accept that,” he said.
Orman said he thinks that the case, though a low-level matter handled in district court, has some pretty weighty issues at play. A juror, he said put it well.
“He said, ‘what Mr. Hill does is important and yet if he crossed the line then criminal action should be taken against him,’” Orman recalled. “I think the issue if he comes back is always going to be is this a First Amendment issue or have we kind of crossed into that gray area?”
He said he hoped the case helps define some lines in that gray area between speech and harassment.
“Those are the kind of things that I hope in the back of my head as a community are thought about and considered,” Orman said.
Contact reporter Andrew Wellner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2270.