SK man earns Human Rights award

Kitsap Human Rights Network (KHRN) President Jerry Hebert said there isn’t a person in the county whom Port Orchard resident Sheldon Levin hasn’t helped.

“If you’ve had your rights infringed upon, he has fought for you,” Hebert said of the 2003 recipient of the Kitsap Human Rights Network’s Marion Boushie Individual Award. “He’s absolutely incredible.”

Levin was honored last night at the KHRN Networking Dinner at Molly Warden Gardens, earning the only individual award amongst fellow honorees Cafe Destino of Bremerton and the Olympic College Multicultural Center.

Hebert said Levin, as a board member for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and vice president of the Kitsap ACLU chapter, has fought continually to make sure all the county’s citizens do not have their civil rights infringed upon.

In recent years, Levin led the fight to change Port Orchard’s ordinance banning political signs posted more than 30 days before an election, and urged the school board not to ban the novel “Snow Falling on Cedars,” by Bainbridge Island author David Guterson.

Levin said the award came as a pleasant surprise.

“I had no idea they were considering me,” said Levin, 60, who has lived in Port Orchard for 30 years with his wife, Nancy. The pair moved to South Kitsap after Levin got work at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as an underwater acoustics scientist.

But he said his passion for defending people’s civil rights dates back as long as he can remember.

“With my Jewish background, I saw the consequences very personally of what happens when our civil rights are taken from us when half of my family was wiped out in Europe,” Levin said.

During his years at the University of Illinois, Levin said watching events unfold during the Cold War also had a profound impact on him.

“People were getting slaughtered on the streets of Hungary and Czechoslovakia,” Levin said. “A fairly large group of Hungarians came to Chicago, and I got to know them. Talking to them about their lives life under Soviet repression had an effect on me.”

He said incidents of censorship trouble him the most, and also feels strongly about protecting freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

Levin said he still regrets that efforts to convince the South Kitsap School Board to overturn its ban on “Cedars” three years ago, including a petition signed by several hundred people, was unsuccessful.

“I still feel it’s unfortunate our young people are losing out on that book,” Levin said. “People have trouble with the language and sexuality in the book, but I think it is a minor part of the book.

“I think it is a wonderful book, and it deals with a very important part of the history in Kitsap County,” he continued, “because the (internment of the Japanese citizens during World War II) started on Bainbridge Island.”

Soon after that battle, Levin notified the state ACLU that a Port Orchard law banned all campaign signs from city-owned rights of way and barred political signs on private property any earlier than 30 days before an election.

The ACLU informed city officials of the ruling in a 1993 case in which the state supreme court struck down an almost identical Tacoma ordinance as an unconstitutional restriction on political speech. The court found that restricting campaign signs while allowing real-estate signs and other signs improperly limited speech based on its content.

In August of 2001, the Port Orchard City Council suspended its enforcement of the ban and tabled action on the proposal to study it further.

Kathy Woodside, the city’s code enforcer, said the city currently has a revamped city ordinance waiting to be approved by the council.

Woodside said the new sign ordinance prohibits signs in city-owned rights of way, but allows for political signs to be displayed on private property for up to 120 days before and 7 days after special elections, and for up to 60 days prior and 7 days after primary or general elections.

Woodside said she hopes the ordinance will come before the council next month.

Levin said as far as he’s concerned, the new ordinance would still be non-compliant.

“To comply, I feel it would have to have no restrictions,” he said. “As far as the public rights-of-way, they are a public forum. And restricting signs on private property, that should raise some eyebrows. If I want to put up a sign that says ‘the mayor is a jerk,’ surely in our free country we have the right to do that.

“I look at those signs as a sign of a healthy democracy,” Levin continued. “I know from an aesthetic point of view people complain about them, but it’s a small price to pay for demonstrating the health of our democracy. A day where there’s no signs is a day I don’t want to see.”

Levin said he is also concerned with protecting Kitsap County residents’ rights to possess medical marijuana, defending students’ rights to decline to say the pledge of allegiance, and supporting the Kitsap Regional’s policy to allow patrons a choice of filtered or unfiltered Internet access.

As a native of Illinois, Levin met his wife, who works as a volunteer coordinator for Manchester Elementary School, while both were pursuing their master’s degrees at the University of Illinois — he in nuclear engineering, she in Russian literature.

They moved to Seattle in 1966 when he was hired by Boeing, but moved to Port Orchard after he was laid off to work for PSNS. They raised three sons here, the oldest is a lawyer, the middle one is an electronics engineer, and the youngest is attending a private liberal arts college in Portland.

All three, he said, share his interest in politics and passion for civil liberties, although they might not see eye-to-eye all of the time.

“My oldest, as a lawyer, sees a lot of things differently than I do,” he said, with a laugh.

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