A group advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana in Missouri has been barred from meeting at the Rolla Public Library, according to members.
An attorney for New Approach Missouri, the nonprofit campaigning to put the issue on the 2018 ballot, described the library’s denial as a violation of the organizer’s First Amendment rights.
Randy Johnson, a volunteer coordinator, wanted to schedule a meeting at the library to train other volunteers on how to “properly and ethically” collect signatures for the new petition. He says he called the library Feb. 26 to book a public meeting room and was told that he would need to get the director’s approval.
But when Johnson told the director the purpose of the meeting, “She immediately said, ‘No, we can’t have that; it’s besides the children’s area,” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘Well ma’am, do you accept state funds?’ She said she did. I said it’s free speech; she’s not allowed to do that, and she said that she and her board ultimately have the choice.”
Diana Watkins, the director of the library, declined to comment. An attorney for the city stated in a letter to the New Approach attorney that the library is not governed by the city and directed him to contact an attorney on the board.
When the Riverfront Times tried to contact that attorney, Paul McMahon, a staff member in his office directed the reporter to call the city attorney.
The issue is only the latest hurdle that New Approach Missouri volunteers have faced in trying to legalize medical marijuana in Missouri.
The group nearly had a medical marijuana measure on the ballot in the recent election, but in November, a judge invalidated 10,000 signatures from people who signed a petition in the wrong voting district. That meant the nonprofit did not have enough signatures
Rolla, which has a population of about 19,000 people, is about an hour and 40 minute drive southwest of St. Louis. The library website says that its nine board members are appointed by the city's mayor. All are volunteers.
The American Library Association's guidelines
hold that library directors should not make such value judgments.
Libraries maintaining meeting room facilities should develop and publish policy statements governing use. These statements can properly define time, place, or manner of use; such qualifications should not pertain to the content of a meeting or to the beliefs or affiliations of the sponsors. These statements should be made available in any commonly used language within the community served.
If meeting rooms in libraries supported by public funds are made available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or based on the ideas that the group advocates. For example, if a library allows charities and sports clubs to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library should not exclude partisan political or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. If a library opens its meeting rooms to a wide variety of civic organizations, then the library may not deny access to a religious organization.
Johnson says he is advocating for medical marijuana because he has done significant research on the drug and thinks it could help a sister who has multiple-sclerosis and has severe muscle spasms and a niece who has seizures daily.
“I wholly believe in medical marijuana; In Israel, they have been doing research on it for over 50 years, and they have scientific proof” of its benefits, says Johnson, who is 58 and lives in St. James, which is nine miles from Rolla.
He has also held meetings to train volunteers at libraries at the Lake of the Ozarks and in Camdenton County. Rolla, he notes, is “a very conservative area, but I know quite a few people that are conservative, Christian, go to church, but they would still vote for it. However I don’t know if they would stand up in front of their peers and say so.”
If he were able to schedule a meeting at the library, Johnson said he would just be training people in how to collect signatures.
“There is no reason for [the director] to stop this; I’m not trying to push anything on anybody — especially children,” he says.
He plans to again call the library and try to schedule a meeting for April 14. If he is turned down, he said he will stand in front of the library and try to collect signatures. New Approach attorney Michael Hill says the organization would also then consider “all options, including litigation.”