Mad River Union
ARCATA – A First Amendment lawsuit against Arcata demands the full restoration of the annual 4/20 “Cannabis Celebration” in Redwood Park.
Full restoration, according to the federal suit, would return the event to its initial status some 10 years ago and stipulate the government’s mandatory advertising of it. Arcata would also be required to provide “adequate security” and unspecified “facilities” for the occasion.
Eureka attorney Peter E. Martin filed the complaint Oct. 16 in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, on behalf of plaintiff Gregory P. Allen, a practicing local attorney and self-described “cannabis activist.” He is president of the Redwood Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and former director of Humboldt Medical Cannabis Center.
The lawsuit alleges that Arcata’s municipal government, Arcata Police Chief Thomas F. Chapman and former City Manager Randal J. Mendosa unlawfully framed a five-year plan in late 2009-early 2010 to close Redwood Park and block the annual 4/20 jubilee. It is an impromptu public gathering which champions legalization and the cannabis subculture.
'The Arcata authorities’ joint actions constituted “an unlawful conspiracy” to deprive Allen and thousands of other 4/20 participants of their constitutional rights to free speech, peaceable assembly and petition for redress of grievances, the lawsuit states. It declares: “This political activity is entitled to the highest protection under the First Amendment.”
Demanding a jury trial, the complaint charges that the plaintiffs engaged in willful subterfuges to close the park to celebrants. “Chapman and Mendosa knew their conduct violated the people’s right to peaceably assemble,” the lawsuit alleges. Hence, they sought to camouflage their actions to bring about the event’s demise; allegedly, Mendosa “did not consult the city attorney about the five-year plan to close Redwood Park.”
The 10-page complaint accuses Arcata officials of disingenuously scheduling tree-limbing operations at the park and ordering the dumping of 2,000 pounds of fetid fertilizer there as a deterrent. These actions were intended to limit access to the park and dissuade advocates from attending the event, despite its ostensible popularity and decade or so of existence.
The suit expressly accuses Chapman and Mendosa of “malicious, oppressive” conduct in “reckless and callous indifference to the constitutional rights of plaintiff and the other 4/20 celebrants.”
The Arcata Police Department, partnering with other local agencies, began stepping up enforcement in Redwood Park and the Community Forest four years ago. This was made known publicly by APD statements circulated in advance of the 4/20 observance.
Officers responded to years of mounting grievances reported by park neighbors, families and residents-at-large about 4/20’s expensive and damaging impacts on private property, public safety and public health.
Citizens objected to trespassing, blocked driveways, illegal camping, dumping, drinking and smoking, open drug dealing, spikes in petty crime, trash infestations, rotting debris, tree damage, erosion and environmental degradation.
Dismayed parents protested that their children were exposed to rampant marijuana smoking and the dangers of serious injury from unleashed dogs. These blights were condemned as intrinsic to a social atmosphere of unbridled permissiveness and disarray.
According to local press reports, no individual or organization took responsibility for obtaining the appropriate permits for the event or for the provision of security, sanitation and post-event cleanup.
Both state law and the Arcata Municipal Code provide enforcement authority. For example, California strictly prohibits smoking of any kind in parks equipped with playgrounds.
Typically in the recent past, to ensure public awareness of the clampdown, Chief Chapman issued an official communiqué days before the 4/20 observance which warned, “As we have done for the past few years, we will be strictly enforcing the Arcata Municipal Code’s restrictions on smoking and drinking alcohol in Redwood Park and the adjacent Community Forest through the entire week.”
Nonetheless, Allen’s lawsuit charges that “in closing Redwood Park and in deterring, chilling and abridging the 4/20 celebrations,” Arcata imposed unconstitutional prior restraint on the participants in the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
The narrative portion of the complaint states that when Allen sought to enter the park on April 20, 2010, he was blocked from the main grassy area by a police cordon. He proceeded to the Community Forest, “where he saw police questioning people about whether their dogs were licensed, and issuing citations to the people who had gathered in the forest.”
Allen was “appalled that the Arcata Police had subjected the 4/20 celebrants to increased scrutiny and enforcement. Plaintiff was appalled that the city had closed Redwood Park.”
The suit alleges that Allen was deterred from returning to the event in subsequent years due to being excluded in 2010 “and due to his observation of the differential treatment the Arcata Police afforded the 4/20 celebrants. The increased scrutiny and enforcement... amounted to viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment.
Allen is entitled to an award of punitive damages against Chapman and Mendosa, the lawsuit claims, because they were Arcata’s final policymakers in the matter, “acting under the color of law.”
The City Council is liable as well because its members “knew of, approved and ratified the actions of Mendosa and Chapman in ending the 4/20 celebrations in Redwood Park.”
In a telephone interview with a reporter after filing the lawsuit, Martin said, “I am angry at this wholesale violation of constitutional rights and the underhanded manner in which those rights were violated without public input. Greg Allen and I are of kindred minds on this issue. We want to see 4/20 restored to what it was a decade ago.”
He added, “The law is quite favorable to us. The city doesn’t get to stop this public gathering just because it doesn’t want to pick up trash or deal with parking issues.”
Concerning the timeline for adjudication, Martin said that typically U.S. District Court would take up such a case in about 18 months. That is less than half the time that would have been involved if the suit had been filed locally, he estimated.
The numbers “4/20” refer to the time of day, 4:20, informally deemed appropriate for cannabis consumption. They are also shorthand for the unofficial counterculture date when cannabis is consumed and lauded and its legalization promoted at venues in major North American cities. Over the years, observances have drawn attendees in San Francisco and in Boulder, Colorado and in the Canadian cities of Ottawa, Ontario; Montréal, Québec; Edmonton, Alberta; and Vancouver, British Columbia.