The ninth-consecutive Ohio Hempfest (http://www.ohiohempfest.org), held on the campus of Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, came off as planned last Saturday, with some 8,000-10,000 people listening to music and speeches, buying hempen goods and fair trade items, and firing up their favorite smokeables under a peaceful Ohio sky. The event, sponsored by the OSU chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org), nearly didn't happen, and it took a last-minute ruling from a federal judge to save it.
Despite OSU having been aware for months that the annual event was once again in the offing – the site had been reserved in October and the reservation confirmed by the university in January – the university informed OSU SSDP a mere five days before Hempfest that the event was canceled. The ostensible reasons were the group's failure to notify OSU police 10 days ahead of the event -- it arrived a day late – and its failure to have a form signed by the group's faculty advisor.
The trouble didn't come as a complete surprise, said Russell Selkirk, a former member and now alumni advisor for OSU SSDP. "We hosted an SSDP event last fall, and several kids were smoking pot in an academic building. The campus police were prepared; they had undercovers there, and they called in the uniforms and shut us down. We were investigated by the university review board as to whether we could continue to be a recognized student organization. They decided we could, but we had to abide by some stipulations, including the 10-day rule, he said.
Then came an ominous email from OSU Chief of Police John Petry. "Petry said he had serious reservations about the event, and we began scrambling around to try to resolve it with him and campus administrators, but they would not return our phone calls. They did not want to talk to us," he said. "Then, on the Tuesday before Hempfest, Petry and Pat Hall, director of the Judicial Review Board, met behind closed doors, then came out and declared that Hempfest was canceled."
Rich Hollingsworth, associate vice president of student affairs, told the Columbus Dispatch that the nature of the event wasn't the issue. "The issue here, really, is about compliance with the directives of the Office of Judicial Affairs," he said. "If the group wanted to reschedule... they could do it. Of course, that would be a little hard to do with the school year ending."
But OSU Police Chief John Petry had other concerns. In an e-mail he sent to SSDP's Sean Luse that same day, Petry cited drugs. "In past years, there has been significant drug use at the event and the sponsoring group has done little to stop that and could even be said to encourage it," Petry wrote. "I am very reluctant to grant any permission for the event to go forward."
With 24 bands and numerous speakers lined up, and with vendors having shelled out money in advance to finance the fest, SSDP was not prepared to see Hempfest go down the drain. Two days later, they were in federal court seeking a temporary injunction against OSU. "This group is being targeted for their message, and the school should know better," said Bob Fitrakis, an attorney who teaches political science at Columbus State Community College and who represented SSDP. "It's one of the last bastions of liberal rights and free thinking in society."
At 5:00pm Friday, about 18 hours before the gates were scheduled to open, US District Court Judge Algenon Marbley ruled on SSDP's behalf, granting the injunction. "Not allowing Hempfest to occur would deprive [SSDP] and the Hempfest speakers and attendees their freedoms of speech and assembly," Marbley held.
And the ninth consecutive OSU Hempfest went off as scheduled under the banner "Overgrow the Government," though not undamaged. All 24 bands played, the vendors hawked their wares, and attendees heard speakers including long-time Kentucky marijuana movement personage Gatewood Galbraith, the Ohio Hempery's Don Wirtschafter, Dan Solano of Police Officers for Drug Law Reform, Abby Bair from SSDP's national office, NJ Weedman Ed Forchion, Fitrakis, and, last but not least, Marvin Marvin of the Party Party.
Attendance was about the same as last year, said Selkirk. It should have been higher. "We really aimed to expand our reach this year," Selkirk said. "We did a lot more advertising outside the immediate area, like in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and the uncertainty about whether Hempfest would go canceled that out. The day before Hempfest, newspapers all over the state were running stories saying it had been canceled. That hurt."
OSU SSDP will undoubtedly do it again next year, said Selkirk, and he has some advice for them. "I think what happened here shows it's important that no matter what you're organizing for that you stand up the unjust and ridiculous rulings the university might try to use to repress you," he said. "They really tried to shut us down, and we took it to court and we won. Keep pushing the powers that be."
Here's some more advice: Don't give them any openings. Get your paperwork in on time.