Erie Morning News pg 16
March 21, 2000
"While the 'mouse-that-roared' syndrome sometimes has the appeal of tweaking the authorities on the nose, we hope the time to stop has finally arrived." -- Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr.
By Ed Palattella
The Rainbow Family's free-spirited belief that it has no leaders might have helped attract 20,000 to the group's annual gathering at the Allegheny National Forest last summer.
But the belief failed to catch the fancy of one important person: a federal judge.
Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr. has rejected the Rainbows' no-leaders defense and convicted three members of failing to apply for a U.S. Forest Service permit for the gathering in June and July 1999.
Cohill also suggested the Rainbows end their pattern of going to court over the permit process. The Rainbows have claimed the requirement that they apply and sign for a free special use permit violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
"It's not as if the issues considered here were 'landmark' in nature," Cohill wrote in a legal opinion and verdict signed last Thursday and filed at the federal courthouse in Erie on Monday. "Time and time again, the Rainbow Family has made the same arguments and had them rejected by courts all over the United States.
"While the 'mouse-that-roared' syndrome sometimes has the appeal of tweaking the authorities on the nose, we hope the time to stop has finally arrived."
The permit violation is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine, although the last time the Rainbows ran afoul of the permit law in the Allegheny National Forest in 1997, a federal magistrate judge fined them each $50. Cohill set sentencing for June 1.
The three defendants last appeared in Cohill's courtroom for a two day nonjury trial in October. The three are Garrick Beck, of Santa Fe, N.M.; Stephen
Sedlacko, also known as Stephen Principle, of Eugene, Ore; and Joan Kalb, also known as Joan Freedom, of New York City. They are out on unsecured bonds.
"I'm disappointed," said John Gerhart, the Erie attorney who represented Beck for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We felt we made a good argument."
Gerhart said he is uncertain whether he will appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The circuit, which covers Pennsylvania,
Delaware, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands, has never ruled on the permit issue. Cohill used as guidance rulings from other circuit courts, includingthe 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Trucilla, the prosecutor, called Cohill's ruling a "test case." He said Rainbows nationwide were watching the case to prepare for this year's annual gathering which he said is in Montana.
"The court has recognized that this litigation has consumed perhaps a lot of unnecessary time and expense at dramatic cost to the taxpayers," Trucilla said. "Perhaps these types of charges will cease."
Trucilla previously said he would have no problem with Cohill convicting the Rainbows and fining them $100 each. On Monday, he said he is considering asking Cohill to fine the Three and give them suspended sentences, which would keep them out of prison but with the possibility they could end up there if they got into trouble later.
Beck, Sedlacko and Kalb were among the 20,000 members of the Rainbow Family who attended the annual gathering from June 28 to July 10 at the 540,000 acre Allegheny National Forest in an area near Ridgway, Elk County. The family, made up largely of nonconformists, gathered to pray for peace.
The Forest Service cited three defendants for the permit violation because officials said each helped lead the Rainbow Family. The use permits are meant to notify the Forest Service of large events so the government can prepare for environmental problems and prevent damage to the forest. The Forest Service is allowed to cite any "spectator or participant" of a noncommercial group of more than 75 people that did not obtain a permit.
The Rainbows built their defense on two arguments -- that the group has no leaders designated to take out the permit, and the permit process is unconstitutional anyway. The three filed motions asking Cohill to acquit them.
Cohill's 18-page opinion includes a brief history and description of the Rainbows, which in 1972 started gathering annually at national forests around July 4. "The Rainbow Family appears to base much of its organization and activities on the ways of the American Indians, or Native Americans as they are sometimes called," Cohill wrote.
Quoting from what he called a Rainbow Family manual, Cohill said the Rainbows believe ''There is no authoritarian hierarchy here. We have a tribal anarchy where we take care of each other, because we recognize that we are all One.'"
Cohill wrote, however, that the Rainbows' structure includes councils, including a Main Council. He cited trial evidence that Forest Service officials considered Beck, Kalb and Sedlacko to be in positions of authority because of their activities, writings or past interactions with the Forest Service at other Rainbow gatherings.
"The defendants have not only fit the definition of 'participants' in the gathering, but also ... had leadership roles as spokespersons for the Rainbow
Family," he wrote. "They are certainly valid objects of prosecution."
Cohill went on to write that the intent of the permit is legitimate -- to protect the national forests -- and not meant to violate any group'sconstitutional rights. He said the permit process "clearly" was intended to regulate conduct "relative to public health and safety, not speech orexpression."
Cohill wrote, "The national forest lands are a precious asset of this nation. While the members of the Rainbow Family may regard the environment as something to be guarded and treasured, and while they may be conscientious about protecting those lands when they are present on them, other groups may not be.
"It would be an impossible assignment for the Forest Service to predict that one group will not harm a national forest and that another group might. There must be some method in place to maintain the 'public order.' It is not an abridgement of First Amendment freedoms if the law is narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest."