CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A report by the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the federal Forest Service has engaged in systematic harassment of people who attend Rainbow Family gatherings on public lands.
The A.C.L.U. opened an investigation this summer after a clash on July 3 between members of the Rainbow Family, an informal group of professed hippies and peace activists, and Forest Service law enforcement officers.
About 7,000 members of the group attended its annual gathering this summer, held in the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Big Sandy in western Wyoming.
Forest Service law enforcement officers fired pepper balls — like paint balls but containing a pepper substance — at Rainbow Family members during the incident.
Scores of witnesses told the A.C.L.U. that the officers had lacked justification. The A.C.L.U. did not talk to Forest Service officials for its report. The report also said that officers had taken the smallest violation as an excuse to search participants’ cars and campsites for drugs.
“This type of harassment and general overzealous enforcement appear to have been the pattern in the U.S.F.S. relationship with the Rainbow Family,” the report said. It reported that the Forest Service had set up roadblocks and safety checkpoints and had “searched and ticketed people on the narrowest of pretexts.”
Linda Burt, executive director of the A.C.L.U. in Wyoming, said her office had interviewed about 60 Rainbow Family members who attended this year’s gathering and reviewed court records of charges against members.
In response to the report, the Forest Service said officers had fired only after a crowd threw sticks and rocks at officers and otherwise interfered in the arrest of a man on drug charges.
John Twiss, the national head of law enforcement for the Forest Service, said Friday that he strongly disagreed with the report.
Mr. Twiss was among the officers who responded to the disturbance at this year’s gathering. He described as “nonsense” the notion that Forest Service officers searched people or vehicles for drugs without probable cause.
The agency wrote only 18 citations for traffic and vehicle violations, but wrote 139 citations and arrested eight people for drug offenses, he said.
The Forest Service is discussing whether to allow future Rainbow Family gatherings on Forest Service lands, he said.
“Their behavior is unacceptable, and it’s a tremendous financial burden on the taxpayers to keep the gathering safe,” Mr. Twiss said.
He estimated that it cost the Forest Service $1 million to patrol the gathering in Wyoming this year. He said the group had not paid any of the costs.
During the pepper ball incident, only one of the people the A.C.L.U. spoke with reported that they had possibly seen one person throw a stick at law enforcement. The rest said they had seen nothing thrown, Ms. Burt said.
In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Burt said the A.C.L.U. was not planning to pursue legal action, but she said she hoped Congress would look hard at the issue. The organization sent its report to members of Wyoming’s Congressional delegation.
“Certainly people do have that right to peaceable assembly under the Constitution,” Ms. Burt said. “It doesn’t state anything in the Constitution that only the ‘right kind’ of people can have peaceable assembly, or only the people who dress like we like to dress can have peaceable assembly.”
Garrick Beck, 58, of Santa Fe, N.M., was a participant at the Wyoming gathering. In a telephone interview Friday, Mr. Beck said he had been attending gatherings since 1972 and had seen increasing harassment from Forest Service law enforcement in recent years.
“I would say that the conclusion that there has been a consistent pattern of harassment is absolutely correct, and some of these consistent patterns have been extremely provocative,” Mr. Beck said.
He said confrontations would escalate more were it not for the peaceful nature of the Rainbow participants.