Police step in to stamp out Weedstock

Tuesday, May 30, 2000

Sheriff’s deputies in Sauk County, Wis., doused the Weedstock festival last week, arresting 12 people and forcing several hundred to leave the annual gathering promoting the legalization of marijuana.

But the arrests failed to snuff out the spirit of the revelers. Organizers took the event from a private farm to the county courthouse to hold protests rallies and a Memorial Day vigil.

“We threw the most exciting Memorial Day party in the nation,” said Ben Masel, a festival organizer who was arrested on May 26. “These people seem to think they can stomp all over the Constitution, and they’re wrong.”

The festival began last week on a private farm in the town of Fairfield and was to continue through yesterday. The event featured camping, workshops and music.

But Sauk County officials on May 25 ordered a halt to the festival, saying it would create an unlawful assembly that violated a number of county codes. They said organizers could be fined up to $10,000 for each day the code was violated. They said those who attended the festival could also be subject to prosecution.

The next day, authorities secured a court order from Sauk County Circuit Judge Virginia Wolfe who said Masel and other organizers failed to obtain a permit under a new county ordinance that restricts open-air gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

Sheriff Randy Stammen used Wolfe’s order to disperse the festival crowd and to arrest a dozen people.

Masel said both the county and Wolfe’s orders against the festival violate First Amendment free-assembly rights. He also contended that Wolfe’s order shouldn’t stand because she didn’t have jurisdiction in the case.

Masel said that when festival organizers sought an injunction against the county’s order to stop the event, two Sauk County judges refused to hear the case and recused themselves. A state appellate clerk then assigned the case to a judge in neighboring Columbia County.

Masel said he and other festival organizers didn’t attend a hearing before Wolfe because they were awaiting action in Columbia County.

“It’s a shame because if the court had jurisdiction, it would have been our first chance to challenge the ordinance on First Amendment grounds,” Masel said. “But now we have to fight on jurisdiction issues.”

A call to the county counsel’s office this morning was not returned.

Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for the First Amendment Center.