Erie Morning News pg 16 March 21, 2000
JUDGE REJECTS RAINBOW FAMILY'S DEFENSE
"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
"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
"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, including the 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
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
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,"
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
"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's constitutional rights. He said the permit
process "clearly" was intended to regulate conduct "relative
to public health and safety, not speech or expression."
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."