No Peace Banners on Memorial Day
June 3, 2005
Every Memorial Day in Boulder, Colorado, for the past 25 years a 10K road race has ended up at the University of Colorado's Folsom Stadium. The event also comes with military trimmings. This year, some soldiers wore their colors, there was a 21-gun salute, and Air Force jets flew over in formation.
A private group called Bolder Boulder sponsors the road race, one of the largest in the country. This year, 47,000 runners participated.
Some peace activists wanted to participate in a different way by expressing their views in the stadium.
Last year, they were not permitted to do so.
And a few days before this year's event, Bolder Boulder told members of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center that they would not be able to display their banners in the stadium.
"They will not permit us to banner or use the Folsom field and other facilities, claiming that these state-owned facilities at the University of Colorado are not a public forum," the peace group said in a statement on its website. "But we, as taxpayers of Colorado, own that facility and heartily disagree, finding that nothing in state law or university rules allows them to place such restrictions on us. Fundamental federal law, our Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, support us."
To test that claim, and to express their opposition to the Iraq War, three members of the group went to Folsom Stadium on the morning of Memorial Day. Carolyn Bninski, 55, Joanne Cowan, 55, and Ellen Stark, 58, entered at the gate, climbed the stadium stairs, and stood at the back so they weren't blocking anyone's view. They then unfurled a banner that said, "End the Occupation of Iraq Now."
"The security people came running up and said, ‘Take that banner down,’ " says Stark. "After Stark and her two colleagues refused to budge, the security officers began twisting the banner out of our arms, and one of the guys squeezed my neck with a couple of his fingers," says Stark.
That made her let go of the banner.
They then looked through the backpacks of the women to see if they had any other banners. "They said if we put up another banner we would be arrested," she says.
They didn't find any more banners, but friends of the activists had carried one in for them. It said, "Protect Free Speech."
"We got that banner, and we held that up," says Stark. "Then they were really mad, and they escorted us outside."
Stark says the police did not want to arrest them or give them a citation, but the protesters were intent on challenging the policy in court. "We said it was very important to see what the law was" on free speech, says Stark. "I finally said that maybe we'll just go back in and put up another banner, which another friend had brought in. This one said, ‘No Blood for Oil.’ Once they heard that, they decided to ticket us."
The women were charged with "improper conduct on public policy." They have a court date on August 3.
Lieutenant Tim McGraw, a thirty-two year veteran of the University of Colorado police force, says the event was private. What's more, he says university policy prohibits such displays.
"In various buildings and facilities, including the stadium, there are various rules and regulations—one cannot smoke or have alcohol, for instance. There's also a rule that one cannot hold up banners because it blocks people's views."
McGraw believes the protest was a publicity stunt. "It became very obvious that they were seeking media attention," he says. "They wanted to gain notoriety."
Cliff Bosley, the race director and son of the founder of the event, agrees. "They were more interested in garnering press as opposed to what their real message was," he says. "We met with them three days before the race, and said, ‘Look, here's the deal: It doesn't really matter what the cause is, if we let one cause in, we've got to let them all in.’ And Boulder is a town of causes. And some want to stand on the Bolder Boulder shoulders. Our stance was we are not going to open the door to people who want to make a statement about prairie dogs, so we said no, with the caveat that we can still create a place for you guys to be. We gave them three or four different ideas—locations along the road race—but they didn't want to do that."
While Stark acknowledges they wanted to get arrested, she says it wasn't to be "unduly obstreperous. We needed to be able to go to a courtroom to see is there free speech or not." Or, as she put it on the group's website, "In these extremely conservative times, when rights of speech are being curtailed, it is extremely important for the university to stand firm in protection of free speech rights to dissent from the government."
Also on the website, Joanne Cowan made the argument about the need to raise voices to stop the war: "The ongoing conflict in Iraq will be cut short by the willingness of people to speak out."
Judd Golden, who is chair of the Boulder County ACLU, is working with the three women in his capacity as a private attorney. He says their arrests were "totally inappropriate and by all indications focused on the content of their speech. There was a plethora of other messages being displayed in various forms, on T-shirts and banners, including ones that said, ‘Run fast, dad!’ The organizers of the event decided that this particular message (of the peace group) conflicted with their message."
Golden says he has a problem "when you tear down banners and eject people and say you can't display this message, and if you do, we'll charge you with a crime."
He says the three defendants first have to figure out what to do about their criminal cases, and then they will consider what civil actions they might have available.