4/20 at CU Boulder: ACLU blasts claim event's a party, not a protest

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In defending CU Boulder's decision to close Norlin Quad and ban visitors on 4/20, Chancellor Philip DiStefano claims the event is a party, not a protest -- an assertion echoed by the institution's spokesperson. But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the Colorado ACLU scoffs at this argument even as he makes it clear that a potential legal challenge to the closure hasn't been ruled out.

DiStefano wrote a letter to the Denver Post in response to the paper's editorial criticizing more active police response to the annual bash. The missive ran in print on Sunday, shortly after another opinion piece called the campus closure overkill.

Here's DiStefano's take:

The Denver Post's editorial advising CU-Boulder to take a page from Denver's playbook on loosely managing the 4/20 gathering made some blanket assertions that need to be clarified.

The contention that the 4/20 gathering at CU-Boulder is a "peaceful protest" is not correct. There are no microphones, demonstrations, or arguments advanced. If it is a protest, then every party on every college campus in America is a protest.

4/20 clogs the center of the CU campus, disrupts research, teaching and the simple mobility of faculty, staff and students. If you want to see ideas advanced, debate engaged, and policies questioned, visit the Conference on World Affairs on campus this week.

4/20 is a gigantic party, and the university's actions are designed to end it and prevent it from becoming more disruptive and damaging to the campus than it already is.

CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard (disclosure: he's a longtime friend of yours truly) echoes this sentiment. "We consider this a big party in the sunshine," he says. "We don't consider it a First Amendment issue.... If this is a First Amendment issue, then any college party anywhere is a First Amendment issue."

The ACLU's Silverstein doesn't buy that line of thinking.

"It is obviously a protest against government policies that criminalize the use of marijuana," he says. "And contrary to the university administration's letter that was published in the Denver Post, a First Amendment event doesn't require speakers and microphones.

"Surely the university administration has heard of silent symbolic vigils," he goes on. "They have neither speakers nor microphones, but no one would question that those are activities that express a view and are protected by the First Amendment."

Last week, reports surfaced about the Boulder chapter of the ACLU exploring the possibility of a legal challenge to CU's plan -- one that Hilliard says was thoroughly vetted by university attorneys in advance.

Silverstein declines to share more details, saying, "I don't talk about court challenges until we're in court." In the meantime, however, "I am focused on this being a dumb idea -- wrongheaded and misguided. It's a deliberate effort to thwart students' right to peaceably assemble for redress of grievances. And I don't think a university administration ought to be deliberately targeting students' right to dissent."

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More from our Lists & Weirdness archive: "Photos: Top five CU Boulder crackdowns before 4/20 visitor ban."

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