On Election Day, even as Americans in five states and the District of Columbia resoundingly approved medical marijuana initiatives, signature gatherers from Floridians for Medical Rights (FMR) were harassed and threatened with violence and arrest at a polling place in Jacksonville Florida. FMR is in the midst of a two-year effort to collect the more than 435,000 signatures necessary to get a constitutional amendment allowing for the medical use of the plant placed on the 1999 ballot in that state.
Petitioners were first asked to leave the polling place, at the Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, by representatives of the church itself, who eventually called the police when the petitioners, who were there legally, refused to leave. The police, ignoring the right to petition at the polls, took the side of the church employees and demanded that the petitioners leave.
FMR director Toni Leeman told The Week Online, "The petitioners showed up at the polling place and began to set up their table. As soon as they pulled out the sign indicating that they were collecting signatures for medical marijuana, representatives of the church came over and told them that they were not permitted to distribute marijuana-related information on their premises.
"When the petitioners refused to leave, citing their right to be there under state and federal election law, one man who worked for the church lunged at one of the petitioners across the table. The representative of the Supervisor of Elections, who is required to be at the polling place for just this kind of situation, did absolutely nothing. Finally, the people from the church called the police, who showed up and told the petitioners that they could either leave or face arrest. It was a blatant violation of our rights. It was a dereliction of duty by both the election supervisor and the police. How could either party not have known that you cannot disallow political speech based on its content? The petitioners were operating wholly within the guidelines for petitioning at a poll. It's simply unimaginable."
A formal complaint has been filed with Sheriff Nathaniel Glover, requesting that the office adopt a written policy and training program to assure that such violations do not occur in the future. A complaint filed with the Supervisor of Elections alleges violations of the rights of petitioners, as well as failure to maintain good order at the polling place. It also demands that the church be removed from the list of polling places in future elections. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Department did not return calls for comment on this story.
(Floridians for Medical Rights is online at http://www.medicalrights.org.)