By BEN NEARY Associated Press Writer
Article Launched: 10/03/2008
CHEYENNE, Wyo.The U.S. Forest Service systematically harasses people
who attend Rainbow Family gatherings on public lands, the Wyoming
chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union contends in a report.
The ACLU began investigating this summer after a clash between
members of the Rainbow Familyan informal group of self-styled
hippies and peace activistsand Forest Service law enforcement officers.
About 7,000 members of the group attended its annual gathering this
summer, which was held in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in
western Wyoming, about 260 miles northwest of Cheyenne.
Forest Service officers fired pepper ballssimilar to paintballs but
containing a pepper substanceat Rainbow Family members on July 3.
Scores of witnesses told the ACLU that the officers lacked
justification, but the Forest Service said officers fired only after
a crowd threw sticks and rocks at them and otherwise interfered in
the arrest of a man on drug charges.
The report also said officers used small violations as excuses to
search participants' cars and campsites for drugs throughout the gathering.
"This type of harassment and general overzealous enforcement appear
to have been the pattern in the USFS relationship with the Rainbow
Family," the ACLU report said. "The USFS has set up roadblocks,
safety checkpoints, rolling gauntlets, and have searched and ticketed
people on the narrowest of pretexts."
John Twiss, national head of law enforcement for the Forest Service,
said Friday that he strongly disagreed with the ACLU's report.
"There's a lot of drugs at the gathering, a tremendous amount of
drugs," Twiss said. "Which often leads to overdoses, violence and a
tremendous amount of problems."
The agency wrote only 18 citations for traffic and vehicle violations
but wrote 139 citations and arrested eight people for drug offenses, he said.
Linda Burt, executive director of the ACLU in Wyoming, said her
office interviewed about 60 Rainbow Family members who attended this
year's gathering and reviewed court records of charges against
members. The ACLU did not talk to Forest Service officials.
During the pepper balling, only one person the ACLU spoke with
reported that someone might have thrown a stick at law enforcement.
The rest said they saw nothing thrown, Burt said.
In an interview Thursday, Burt said that the ACLU is not planning to
sue, but that she hopes Congress looks hard at the issue. The ACLU
sent its report to members of Wyoming's congressional delegation.
"Certainly people do have that right to peaceable assembly under the
Constitution," Burt said. "It doesn't state anything in the
Constitution that only the 'right kind' of people can have peaceable
assembly, or only the people who dress like we like to dress can have
Twiss was among the officers who responded to the disturbance at this
year's Rainbow Family gathering. He described the notion that Forest
Service officers searched people or vehicles for drugs without
probable cause as "nonsense."