Free speech or an excuse to get high?

Around 4:29 pm on Wednesday, April 20th the crowd of administrators hiding from the rain under the Christie-Wright-Patterson awning let out a sigh of relief. Bad weather and tight security, among other things led to small student turnout for UVM’s infamous 420 celebrations. When the clock struck 4:20 it was obvious that the 50 students were outnumbered by the administration, including President Fogel, and the UVM Police accompanied by private security guards.

The focus of the rally was not about reforming marijuana laws as much as it was about the liberty one should have to assemble in protest of laws perceived to be unjust. The only thing smoked were rolled cigarettes containing only tobacco, which were passed out by students. It was much more organized than had been in years past, with students holding large banners that read, “Free Speech or Police State” and “Not here to smoke pot, here to resist martial law.”

UVM junior Tommy Wheeler, who was arrested at last year’s rally, was the event organizer and master of ceremonies using a loud speaker to state the cause and recite the First Amendment.

The UVM administration made a great effort to make sure that the rally would not be of the size and the magnitude that it had been in years past. On April 13th, President Fogel sent a mass email to the UVM community asking students not to participate in 420 activities. His concern was that UVM’s image is trivialized by the event and detrimental to the university’s growth.

The email was met with mixed response from students. While most students could not completely disagree with all that had been written, many felt that Fogel did not address certain issues that were of great importance. Fogel did not include any acknowledgment of student’s right to peaceably assemble.

Police officers guarded nearly every entrance to the Redstone campus, allowing only students who could verify their enrollment access to the grounds. It was reported that some students were forced to show their UVM ID as many as three times to get on to Redstone campus.

This was a much different scene from that of the previous year where students greatly outnumbered police who seemed ill prepared to deal with the surge of protestors. Nikoli Sears and Wheeler were arrested during the gathering for “inciting a riot,” and were also suspended from the university for one year. However, the two maintain that they were merely voicing their dissidence and encouraging others to do the same. Sears and Wheeler, with help from the ACLU, sued the University and were awarded $7,500 each in an out-of-court settlement; their suspensions were also reduced to six months.

This year Wheeler tried to organize an official event recognized by the university on April 20th. His intent was to hold a rally in support of an individual’s freedom of speech and civil liberties. He told the Cynic that he tried to compromise with the university, he wanted to create a controlled event where students would not publicly smoke marijuana and where the focus was not on the legalization of marijuana, but that it not to say that the issue would be ignored. Wheeler requested space on campus as well as a podium and microphone, permits for these were denied by the university.

Wheeler said of this, “What bothers me the most is that [the university] was not willing to compromise. We wanted to turn the event away from the focus on marijuana and to focus on civil liberties and free speech. It would have been beneficial for both the students and university.”