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Judge orders city to allow 2-day marijuana rally

Organizers of the annual pro-marijuana legalization Freedom Rally on Boston Common say the city attempted to force its own vendors on the rally, a move that runs counter to past practices. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

A Superior Court judge granted an emergency order Friday that forced the city of Boston to grant a permit for this weekend’s rally promoting the legalization of marijuana, and blocked the city from imposing changes that organizers say would interfere with the food vendors at the event.

City officials had withheld the permit for what organizers are calling the Freedom Rally until the eve of the festival and insisted over the last week that the city’s licensed food vendors be allowed to operate within perimeters set up for the rally on the Carty Parade Grounds and the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common. That arrangement would have meant a loss of income for the event organizers.


Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the rally Saturday and Sunday, and organizers had already contracted with their own vendors, which would provide a significant source of revenue for their umbrella group, the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, also known as MassCann. The rally, which has gathered annually for over two decades, includes musical acts and political messages in support of the legalization of marijuana.

The group’s campaign has particular importance this year, organizers said, because voters will decide in November whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use. They said the city’s attempt to block the festival was an attack on the group’s free-speech rights. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has spoken out against the referendum.

“These restrictions are designed to impede MassCann from raising revenue and carrying out its speech,” John Swomley, an attorney for the group, argued during a hearing Friday. He called the city’s conditions “another attempt to starve the income stream necessary to fund the message MassCann espouses.”

Catherine Lizotte, senior assistant corporation counsel for the city, argued that rally organizers do not have a free-speech right to profit from their political message.


Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson suggested that the city had caused a “self-inflicted wound” by withholding the permit — which was issued in January 2016 — until the last day, and insisting the week before the rally that city vendors be included, forcing the judge to make an emergency decision.

“Why is it coming up so late in the game?” Wilson asked.

Lizotte told the judge that city officials did not realize until recently that the rally would be using its own vendors, rather than the city-licensed vendors. That created a problem, she said, because the city’s vendors have a license to operate on the Common and the city cannot ask them to move because of the rally.

Wilson said, however, that the rally has used its own vendors for years, a practice that he said has been upheld by previous court decisions.

“There is a history here,” the judge said.

After the ruling, a spokeswoman for the city said, “We respect the judge’s decision, and will comply with the court’s ruling on this case.”

Swomley welcomed the decision and complained that the city has in the past sought to interfere with the group’s right to rally on the Common; he said any change to the permitting conditions would interfere with that right.

Separate from the dispute over the rally, the city several months ago ordered an outside review of Boston’s event permitting process. It came as two city officials were indicted on charges they allegedly threatened to withhold permits for a music event that had hired non-union workers.


The federal indictment — naming Kenneth Brissette, head of tourism, and Timothy Sullivan, acting head of intergovernmental relations, as defendants — raised questions about whether Walsh’s administration was allowing politics to influence the permitting process.

The mayor hired Brian Kelly, the former head of the public corruption unit in the US attorney’s office, to conduct the review. Brissette and Sullivan have pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this year, a federal judge also prohibited the Walsh administration from interfering with another well-attended event: South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Police had attempted to shorten the parade route — as a public safety precaution — but the judge said officials could not alter the route. Organizers claimed the effort was retaliation for past disputes, but Walsh denied the accusation.

In a filing Friday, Swomley argued that city officials have repeatedly sought to alter the conditions of the pro-marijuana rally’s permits, including since Walsh took office in 2014. For instance, Swomley argued, earlier this year Brissette sought to restrict the rally to a one-day event, so that an antique car show that pays more to the city could hold the event on the Common on a specific weekend. As a result, MassCann changed its rally to a different weekend.

Swomley also said that Boston police officials this year sought an additional $33,000 for police, but the organizers refused to pay more than what they were already paying for Boston Park Rangers, arguing that the rangers would be sufficient for crowd control.


“The fees demanded by BPD for their historically unnecessary involvement would effectively bankrupt the event,” Swomley argued in the filing.

One of the organizers for the pro-marijuana event has had a previous run-in with Boston police. Bill Downing was charged with drug distribution in January for selling what Downing says he believed was a legal product known as CBD, a cannabis-based oil that is recognized across the country for its medical benefits. Downing, who has pleaded not guilty and has said the product is available in commercial stores, alleges the charges were in retaliation for his vocal support of the marijuana referendum.

Milton Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.