In Colorado Springs, freedom of speech may not turn out to be "free" speech.
City police, who last week staged a massive security operation in response to a peaceful demonstration by a small group of environmental activists at The Broadmoor hotel, say they are exploring the possibility of sending the protesters a bill for the operation.
"This is absurd," commented Aaron Sanger, an attorney and spokesman for Corvallis, Oregonbased Forest Ethics, one of the activist groups that helped organize the rally. Police have indicated they may send a bill to the group.
Sanger said it's the first time he's heard of a law-enforcement agency seeking to bill activists for a demonstration. "There isn't any legal basis for it."
But Lt. Skip Arms, CSPD spokesman, said the commander of the police department's tactical unit plans to meet with representatives for the City Attorney's office "to research if there's the legal possibility to go after costs."
About 30 environmental activists, mostly from the Pacific Northwest and throughout Colorado, gathered in the Springs from June 10 through June 12 to protest against the North American Wholesale Lumber Association, which was holding its annual convention at The Broadmoor.
The activists charge that the association, representing North America's largest wholesalers and distributors, is guilty of trading in massive amounts of wood products from endangered forests.
Police showed up in force. While they would not disclose details of the operation, dozens of officers could be spotted around the hotel, and some were seen carrying riot helmets with gas-mask attachments. A police helicopter circled above the hotel for hours.
While activists decried the police presence as vastly out of proportion, Arms says police wanted to be prepared for "all kinds of different contingencies." He says advance "intelligence information" indicated that some of the activists coming to town had been associated with previous protests "that involved activities such as chaining themselves to objects or setting fires."
The main protest event was a rally outside The Broadmoor on June 10. While the rally itself was peaceful, three activists made their way into the hotel's bell tower and hung a banner denouncing the wholesalers association. They were arrested and issued summonses for trespassing and property damage.
Two days later, an even smaller group of about 10 activists traveled to the Garden of the Gods, where the conventioneers' spouses were scheduled to take a tour. The activists, who planned to perform a skit for the spouses, say they were followed to the park by numerous police cars and motorcycles, as well as a van full of officers in riot gear.
Police say activists subsequently engaged in criminal trespass by disobeying an order to leave the Garden of the Gods visitor center, which is privately owned. The activists say they never disobeyed any orders.
Following the events, police contacted one of the activists and asked for the address of Forest Ethics, explaining that the police wanted to know where to send a bill.
Arms says billing the group may be justified because activists engaged in criminal activity, including the banner hanging and the alleged trespassing.
The activists, meanwhile, say everyone who came to the rally acted as individuals. None of the three people who were arrested -- two from Colorado and one from Moab, Utah -- is connected with Forest Ethics, Sanger said.
Arms, meanwhile, claims police have evidence that the people who hung the banner were acting in concert with rally organizers. "We know that they were associated," Arms said. "We know telephone communications that [they] were engaged in."
Arms would not provide specifics on the evidence but said there may be legal precedence to recover cost if rally organizers conspired to break the law.
"We have a legal obligation to protect their right to peaceful demonstration," Arms said. "But then, when they deliberately engage in criminal activity, that changes the mindset of it. And that's where they open the door for civil penalties, possibly."
-- Terje Langeland
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