A valuable lesson was learned by the Vail Police Department, the Vail Valley Foundation and myself on Sunday at the GoPro Games. As a volunteer for Right to Know Colorado, a group petitioning to get a GMO labeling ballot initiative to the Colorado voters in November, I thought it would be a great idea to circulate petitions at the GoPro Games. I contacted the town of Vail to ask what was their policy on this. I was told to contact the Vail Valley Foundation, which I did. I was told I would not be allowed to circulate petitions inside the venue that the Vail Valley Foundation leased from the town of Vail.
I was quite frustrated that I would not be able to reach a group of people I know are concerned about heath and wellness and would value the chance to sign the petition. It took several days before I remembered information I had learned while working with the Freedom and Liberty for Eagle County, Colorado group. The First Amendment! Ask the average citizen what is the First Amendment, and you might be lucky to get “freedom of speech” as your answer. While true, the First Amendment is much more that that. The First Amendment states, ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” I had my answer — the town of Vail, and certainly not the Vail Valley Foundation, could stop me from circulating petitions in a public space.
Therefore, on Sunday I showed up and stood there with my clipboard and a T-shirt that said “Sign GMO labeling petition here.” I had collected roughly 40 signatures when a Vail Valley Foundation staff member approached me and told me I was not allowed to circulate petitions and had to leave. I told him I was not vending, pamphleteering, soliciting, or collecting funds, I was circulating a legal petition approved by the Colorado secretary of state’s office and that I had every right to be there and continue what I was doing. He said he would have the police remove me. Ten minutes later a Vail police officer arrived to speak with me. He explained to me that the Vail Valley Foundation did not want me there and therefore I had to leave. I said I did not. He spoke of permits and leases and trespass laws. I explained that I had a legal petition approved by the Colorado secretary of state and had every right to do so. He said, “Yeah, the First Amendment.” Yeah! He would go do more research and may or may not be back.
Five minutes or so later, three officers showed up and told me I had to leave. Now! I tried to plead my case, but was told if I did not leave immediately I would be arrested for criminal trespass. The officer in charge started to pull out his handcuffs. Having never been arrested before, I thought it prudent to leave. The officers escorted me out of the venue. On our way out, I mentioned I had spoken with Michael Cacioppo that morning, and he said that circulating petitions in a public space was my Constitutional right. I mentioned that I’m sure the town of Vail did not want to get involved in violating my rights. Now that we were out of the area, the officer in charge had a chance to cool off and think. He made a call to Cmdr. Craig Bettis for more information. It was not long before Cmdr. Bettis called back and asked to speak with me. He stated that the officers were working off bad information and I did, in fact, have every right to circulate petitions in a public space. I had their apologies and was told to carry on. I headed back into the Games to continue but the rain had started and it was quite difficult to get more signatures.
So, what did the Vail Police Department, the Vail Valley Foundation and I learn on Sunday at the GoPro Games? First, the public is always protected by the Constitution to petition government. Second, it is responsibility of everyone — cops, event organizers, and the public to know the “rights of the people.”
As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court,“We have recognized this right to petition as one of the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights, and have explained that the right is implied by the very idea of a government, republican in form.”
It is unfortunate that all this even had to happen. If the Vail Valley Foundation had only supported GMO labeling and welcomed us with open arms, they would not now be looking the fool.
If you see volunteers out there circulating the Right to Know Colorado petitions, please stop and add your name to this worthy cause. This campaign gives Coloradans the opportunity to make informed decisions about their diet, health, and general lifestyle. Food labels list and describe nearly every detailed component of the food product, from the caloric values and processing information, to the fat and protein content and the known allergens. Adding a simple label for GMO ingredients would fulfill Colorado consumers’ right to know, enabling them to make educated food purchases and dietary choices for themselves and their families. You can go to http://www.righttoknowcolorado.org/ for more information. We’ll be out there at many public events, because now we know of our right to petition. Look for us at the Vail and Edwards farmers markets.