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NORML Left Its Booth, Caused No Fuss


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Henry Koch chilled out on a sunny, crisp Saturday afternoon. Koch said it was his "hollow" hemp shirt that kept him from sweating as he mingled with fans at Columbia's 3 Rivers Music Festival.
"I thought you weren't supposed to be out of your booth," Alex Dingnam, a 13-year-old Hand Middle School student, said as he walked by. "We get that sometimes," said Koch, president of the Midlands Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Then he went back to handing out fliers and "freedom cards" because it was his right to do so.

NORML had sued 3 Rivers Music Festival and Columbia city officials over a policy, which is new this year, that prohibits nonprofit groups from leaving their assigned booths to distribute materials.

The festival told a federal judge Friday that it would not kick out activists who stroll around distributing fliers, despite the policy.

The lawsuit put the spotlight on the role a big festival has as a free-speech forum.

Koch, his materials-holding hand always outstretched, actively engaged people in conversation. He even handed a flier to Columbia City Councilman E.W. Cromartie, who rode by in a golf cart.

Koch shrugged and smiled as the councilman drove off.

"This is what should be normal," he said. "They advertise as a festival of diversity. We feel this is a message that needs to be told."

With a lei made with fake marijuana leaves around his neck, NORML member Brian Hannon passed out fliers.

He said people have been stopping by the group's booth saying, "We've read about you in the newspapers" or "We've seen you on TV" since the festival gates opened.

"I love it because everybody knows we're here now," Hannon said.

And there were plenty of visitors to NORML's Park Street booth Saturday afternoon.

"I smoke too much for it to be illegal," said one man who got a button for his $1 donation.

One woman said, "I better not talk to you long. They'll think we're up to something."

NORML's booth was flanked by the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Prevent Child Abuse South Carolina. The booth attendants for the organizations sat at tables and didn't approach festivalgoers.

Koch approached as many people as he could.

Among other things, the NORML flier states that "the laws on the books make a plant that grows wild and unattended by humans illegal."

The "freedom card" offers advice for people when confronted by police.

Sonya Shokoohi made her friend Chantelle Cormier stop at the NORML booth because she saw a voter-registration sign. Shokoohi didn't know the recent history of NORML and the festival when she was handed a flier.

"I'm not easily offended," she said after reading a bit. "I think everybody needs to be heard.

"Everybody has an opinion."

Connie Davis, who stopped by the booth with her husband, John, on their way to the Wachovia Stage, agreed.

"It's about freedom of speech," she said. "People have a choice to take the (flier) or not."

Source: State, The (SC)
Author: Otis R. Taylor Jr., Staff Writer
Published: April 18, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The State
Contact: stateeditor@thestate.com
Website: Columbia SC Breaking News, Sports & Crime | The State
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