A Denver city councilman is questioning why organizers of last weekend's 4/20 celebration were given a free permit to use Civic Center when other large-scale events pay nearly $4,000 a day for festivals.
"My concern is they are hiding behind the First Amendment so they can hold a rally and not have to pay for it," said Councilman Charlie Brown, who is pushing for a new law that would clean up the language about who can receive free general assembly permits.
"This is about fairness and equity," Brown said. "The ordinance would tighten up the permitting process for Civic Center. That is sacred ground to me. It is a national historic area. To let a group have it like that for free? You have to be kidding."
Denver has two types of permits to reserve park space — one is for festivals and events and charges a fee of between $260 and $3,925 depending on attendance and if alcohol is served. Those permit holders must have at least $1 million in insurance coverage and must pay for security, portable toilets, trash service and electricity use.
The city issued between 200 and 300 of those permits in 2012, including events such as Taste of Colorado, the Colfax Marathon and Step Up for Down Syndrome Awareness Walk.
The other public-assembly permit is for First Amendment-type gatherings of 50 or more people that carries no fee or requirements for insurance or security.
Those events are defined in city law as demonstrations, picketing, speech-making, marches, vigils and "all other like forms of conduct which include the communication or expression of ideas, views or grievances," according to the municipal code.
Last year the city issued 12 public-assembly permits for events that included a "We Are Women" rally, a protest against fracking, a Day of Prayer event and an Occupy Denver event.
The law specifies that those First Amendment events shall not be "primarily commercial in nature," a phrase that city officials say needs clarification.
"What does that actually mean?" asked David Broadwell, assistant city attorney, who is working with others in the city to look at the park permitting process.
"Why do we have a separate process at all?" Broadwell said. "Anyone who wants to reserve a parks space for an event, why isn't there a singular permitting process? Or do we have to give breaks and be more tolerant on fees, insurance, bonding, security deposits? Is it possible to have one uniform permitting system for all types of events, or do you need more permissive provisions for people who want to reserve park space for pure free speech events?"
The American Civil Liberties Union in 1990 successfully sued the city and county of Denver for charging "unreasonable" fees to groups wanting to hold rallies in city parks.
The 1990 lawsuit resulted when the group Save Our Pavilion was charged $225 in permit fees and $500 in liability insurance for a one-hour protest at City Park over a plan to tear down the park's historic pavilion to make way for an office building for the parks and recreation department. That plan was ultimately scuttled.
A federal judge issued an injunction barring the city from imposing a permit fee and insurance. The next year, the city established the free First Amendment permit.
The 4/20 event has been held for several years in Civic Center. Its organizer, Miguel Lopez, argues the event is purely political in nature. Last weekend, the event was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, but a shooting Saturday that resulted in minor injuries to three people prompted Lopez to cancel Sunday's activities.
Lopez said the event, which featured live music and speeches, was not a party. His organization continues to lobby for further freedoms around marijuana and isn't satisfied with the passage of Amendment 64 in November, which allows for legal consumption and cultivation of marijuana in Colorado.
"We intend to be a festival some day, but at this time, we cannot because a class of people are being affected by prohibition of marijuana," he said.
Lopez said his group followed the advice of Denver police officials in how to run a responsible event — purchasing insurance that covered turf damage and terrorism, renting portable toilets and Dumpsters, paying $2,200 for a private security firm, and spending $600 for an ambulance to be on standby.
Lopez said the event is still a political rally despite vendors selling marijuana-related items.
"Denver 4/20 has included speeches, musical performances, demonstrations and symbolic acts of protests," he said. "The vending of cannabis-related wares, food and merchandise also falls under the gambit of First Amendment protected speech and is incidental to the primary purpose."
Denver police say they spent about $20,000 to provide security during Saturday's event. Organizers for Taste of Colorado say they spend upward of $25,000 a day for police presence.
Attorney David Lane said Denver will end up in court if it begins charging fees for political groups to gather in city parks.
"People have the right to make political statements of any kind that they want," he said. "And charging money for free speech means the speech is not free."
Lane also says that political groups shouldn't have to pay for police presence — that it should be the city's desire to ensure public safety. He referenced the arrest of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 for violating a court-ordered injunction against demonstrations.
"The city of Birmingham, Ala., used to run that scam on Martin Luther King Jr., " Lane said. "That didn't work any better in Birmingham in 1963 than it will in Denver in 2013."
Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jpmeyerdpost