Newsbrief: University of Vermont to Pay $15,000 to Students Arrested for Marijuana Advocacy 11/26/04

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Two University of Vermont students arrested in April at an on-campus "420" rally because they advocated legalizing marijuana will be paid $7,500 each by the university for violating their First Amendment rights, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The university agreed to the payments to avoid a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union on the students' behalf.

Over the years, Vermont students gathered on campus at 4:20pm on April 20 (4/20) to rally for marijuana legalization, but in the last three years the university has attempted to squelch the rally by flooding it with police and by scheduling alternative events. Last year, for the first time in years, there was no 420. "Due to the nature of how the event evolved over time, it became our goal to stop this 420 event from taking place," Enrique Corredera, the university's communications director, told the Chronicle.

The rally, which attracted up to a thousand people, had become "one big party," said university police chief Gary Margolis, who viewed the gatherings less as a political event than an excuse for massive law-breaking. "There is a difference between a political rally and an all-out party with purposeful violation of the law," he told the Chronicle.

But Margolis apparently doesn't know what that difference is. When Vermont student Thomas Wheeler organized a revival of the rally this year, five or six hundred students and 20 university police officers showed up. Wheeler and another student, Nikolai Sears, were quickly arrested by university police and charged with disorderly conduct.

Apparently having a firmer grasp of the Constitution than Chief Margolis, local prosecutors dropped the charges, but the university continued its efforts to persecute Wheeler and Sears. A disciplinary hearing found the pair innocent of any charges related to the rally, but suspended Wheeler for a year for an unrelated noise violation.

That attracted the interest of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which threatened to file suit against the university for violating their First Amendment rights. "The students had been unlawfully arrested," Vermont ACLU director Allen Gilbert told the Chronicle. "There should be no university action taken against them."

Wheeler and Sears asked for $15,000 each, a formal apology, and the revocation of Wheeler's suspension, but agreed to split the $15,000 and gave the university the option of either formally apologizing or shortening Wheeler's suspension from one year to one semester. The university chose the latter.

As for Wheeler, he plans to celebrate his return to the halls of academe with another 420 next spring, when his suspension expires. "This one was a good start in revitalizing the tradition," he said. "I got arrested, but later my rights were protected. People will notice this; the seed has been planted." So to speak, of course.

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Issue #364 , 11/26/04

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