BOSTON, MA—The 27th annual Boston Freedom Rally took place on the Boston Common this past weekend, but once again the event almost didn’t take place.
The reason? Permitting hassles generated by the City of Boston under the regime of anti-marijuana Mayor Marty Walsh. Organizers of the rally say they were faced with arbitrary rules not enforced with other events. It took a court injunction to allow the rally to take place as planned.
Boston has been throwing up roadblocks in front of the event for more than 20 years. Finally forced to defend itself legally, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), the Massachusetts state NORML affiliate that puts on the Boston Freedom Rally every year, have been in and out of court with the City of Boston since 1997.
“Other organizers of events on the Common report a simple and smooth permitting process,” MassCann said Friday in a statement on Facebook. “In MassCann’s case, however, there is no agreed-upon set of requirements from one year to the next. Each year the City presents a new basket of arbitrary requirements aiming to make the Rally more troublesome to produce or less profitable.”
That’s a position a Boston court eventually agreed with.
Here’s how it all went down.
For MassCann, obtaining the permits needed to put on the Freedom Rally every year is a long process that requires a lot of negotiation with city officials. The permitting process for this year began in 2008—yes, 2008—by longtime MassCann stalwart and Freedom Rally foreman Bill Downing, a co-plaintiff in MassCann’s lawsuit.
“Knowing that the city of Boston has been obstructive, mean and nasty to us all along, we filled out Rally applications in 2008 for the years 2009 through 2020,” Downing told HIGH TIMES on Sunday. “So, we applied for this event in 2008.”
Revised applications for this year’s rally were submitted to the city in September 2015, and again in January, along with a public event license application. But it wasn’t until just late this summer that the city presented MassCann with a list of demands that would have to be met in order to receive permits for the rally.
“They had a huge list of demands. Most of them were unconstitutional,” said Downing. “Many of them were things that we did anyway, every year we do it. They didn’t need to demand it—we do. It’s never been a problem.”
At first, there was one demand that event organizers didn’t like at all: city officials wanted MassCann to hire a large contingent of Boston Police to provide security for the Freedom Rally. But MassCann has always hired security for the event, both private security for stage areas and the Boston Park Rangers to protect the crowd.
MassCann has always left it to the discretion of the Boston Park Rangers to staff as many rangers as they feel necessary, and MassCann pays the bill. It’s a working relationship that has been nurtured out of mutual respect and a common goal of keeping rally goers safe.
“We just tell them ‘assign as many people as you need.’ There’s no limit, we’re willing to pay whatever it takes to have the Park Rangers here to keep the event safe,” Downing said. “They’ve always taken care of us, and they’ve done a really good job. They’ve always kept us safe, any crowd problems they control it, if we need backup, we’re able to ask the Rangers to give us a hand, and they’re always right there.”
“We don’t need the Boston Police, but they’ve always tried to force us to hire them,” Downing continued. “The only reason the Boston Police have ever come here is to hassle our crowd.”
As the stalemate over police protection continued and the Freedom Rally weekend drew closer, MassCann still didn’t have a permit in hand. And then, with less than a week remaining in negotiations, the City of Boston added one more contingency: that street vendors licensed by the city should be allowed to vend within the Freedom Rally without having to purchase a vending space from MassCann. In previous years, the city’s vendors were still allowed on the Boston Common—just not within the perimeter of the Freedom Rally itself.
The funds MassCann receives from these vendors help pay for producing the rally, which costs tens of thousands of dollars annually. The Boston Freedom Rally is always free to attend, and while donations are collected by MassCann volunteers during the rally, vendor contracts are essential to recoup operating expenses that would otherwise be covered by ticket prices.
Allowing city vendors to vend within the confines of the rally would financially hurt MassCann, perhaps which is why the requirement was added at the last minute.
“These restrictions are designed to impede MassCann from raising revenue and carrying out its speech,” John Swomley, an attorney for MassCann argued at Friday’s hearing, calling the city’s demands an “attempt to starve the income stream necessary to fund the message MassCann espouses.”
Superior Court Justice Paul Wilson agreed, asking the city’s attorney why they were just now asking for their vendors to be included in the rally when the permit had been filed for in January.
“Why is it coming up so late in the game?” Wilson asked during the hearing.
Representing the city of Boston, attorney Catherine Lizotte responded by saying that city officials did not realize until recently that the rally would be using its own vendors. Judge Wilson again saw right through the city’s smoke screen, saying that MassCann has used its own vendors for years, and had been upheld by previous court decisions.
“I grant a preliminary injunction prohibiting the City from having its city-authorized vendors within the perimeter of the Rally this weekend,” Wilson wrote.
Perhaps the biggest loser was Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who wasted no time complaining about the court’s decision to allow a free speech event to happen as planned—exactly as it has for nearly a quarter century.
“Unfortunately the judge ruled that the vendors that have been there all summer long and will be there all fall, have to go on the outside and this group can bring their own vendors in and it really shouldn’t have gone to court,” Walsh told New England Cable News. “It really shouldn’t have gone to court.”
The big issue that is being ignored by Boston media is that MassCann, each and every year, faces numerous challenges with city officials that other events don’t have to deal with in order to hold their annual event, which is also the largest annual pot protestival on the East Coast and the second largest in the world, behind Seattle’s Hempfest.
Organizers of other events on the Boston Common report a simple and smooth permitting process, MassCann says. Bill Downing agrees.
“It’s like this every year, they’re always thinking up new stuff to try to screw us over,” Downing said. “Unfortunately there’s one set of rules for every other special event happening. And then there’s a set of rules for MassCann. We’re treated with discrimination by the Parks Department, and by all the city departments.”
“They’re supposed to be custodians of the very first place on the planet in the known universe where freedom of speech, and freedom of expression, were guaranteed by law,” Downing explained. “It’s America’s first public place, that’s Boston Common. This is the birthplace of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. And that the city would be such a shitty custodian of such a sacred place that they’re willing to abridge freedom of speech and freedom of expression just because they don’t like marijuana laws seems to me to be extremely petty.”
Massachusetts is one of five states whose voters will decide on legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults in November. If Question 4 passes this November, marijuana would be taxed and regulated similar to alcohol, with adults over 21 able to grow, use and possess marijuana legally.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is one of the leading critics of the initiative, and MassCann has a message for the pro-booze, anti-marijuana mayor:
“Next year’s Rally may convey a message even less agreeable to the Mayor—not that recreational marijuana SHOULD BE legal for adults, but that it now IS legal.”