Pubdate: Thu, 21 Aug 2008
Source: Olympian, The (WA)
Copyright: 2008 The Olympian
Cited: Oly Hempfest


That pesky First Amendment right of free speech certainly can be 
troubling at times.

There are some individuals in this community who want to know how 
Intercity Transit officials can get away with allowing advertisements 
for Hempfest on city buses?

The answer to the question, of course, is free speech.

Transit officials have realistic limits on the kinds of 
advertisements they won't accept. An advertisement for Hempfest does 
not rise to need of censorship, transit officials have said.

It's the right decision.

Like it or not, Hempfest is a legitimate community event. Promoters 
say that more than 30,000 people attended Hempfest 2007. That's a 
huge increase over the 500 people who gathered for Olympia's first 
Hempfest in 2003. Organizers say their goal is to "break down the 
barriers and remind people about our heritage and our responsibility 
to be active citizens."

This year's festival, which is set for Heritage Park on Saturday and 
Sunday, will feature more than 16 musical acts and many speakers. If 
recent history is any indication, the speakers will talk about the 
benefits offered by the cannabis plant including the medicinal use of 
marijuana and industrial applications for hemp.

And therein lies the rub.

Some see Hempfest as a promotion for illegal drug use.  Critics say 
the event should not be condoned by any public entity.

The fact of the matter is Hempfest is a registered nonprofit 
organization and the state Department of General Administration has 
already issued a permit to organizers to stage their two-day 
festival. Remember, Washington voters approved the medicinal use of 
marijuana in 1998.

But a handful of critics have chastised Intercity Transit for 
accepting bus advertising that features an image of a marijuana leaf 
and the phrase "Equal Rights are for Everybody." The advertisement is 
a statement in favor of legalization of marijuana, timed to the 
upcoming Hempfest event.

Intercity Transit, by its own rules, could forbid the advertisement 
if it were "an encouragement for people to get high," said Tom 
Bjorgen, an attorney who represents IT. But Bjorgen said he assumes a 
reasonable reader would see it as a political statement advocating 
the legalization of marijuana.

"I don't think this is an encouragement to engage in any illegal 
action," he said. "I think it's more of the nature of a political 
statement: 'We think it should be legalized.' "

IT spokeswoman Meg Kester said the contract for bus advertising 
generates a minimum of $1.22 million over a five-year period and that 
transit officials have set some advertising limits. "We exclude 
promotion of hard liquor and cigarettes because although these 
products are legal, there is precedent that these products cannot be 
promoted to minors, and of course, our buses are viewable by minors," 
Kester said. "We also do not post content deemed obscene, defamatory, 
profane or sexual, nor content that incites a breach of the peace 
such as epithets based on race, religion, color or gender."

Periodically, the Intercity Transit governing authority struggles 
with the question of what should and should not be allowed in bus 
advertisements. Previous controversies have arisen over a pro-life 
statement, an anti-war position and promotion of mammograms and 
screenings for prostate cancer.

"Political and issue-oriented messages on public buses is considered 
part of First Amendment right to freedom of speech ..." Kester said, 
"To disallow or censor such postings would be in opposition to the law."

Free speech might make some people uncomfortable, but it's a right 
every citizen must embrace as a founding principle of our democracy. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake