Boston Freedom Rally History

The Boston Freedom Rally is an annual event in Boston, Massachusetts. Held on the third Saturday in September, it is traditionally the second largest annual gathering demanding marijuana law reform in the United States, after the Seattle Hempfest. It is organized by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MASS CANN), the Massachusetts state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws also known as MASS CANN/NORML.

The first Freedom Rally was held in 1989 in North Adams, Massachusetts. The second was on the dock beside the USS Constitution in 1990. The third was held in front of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Street and the fourth, in 1992, was held on Boston Common at the Parkman Bandstand. In 1995 the Freedom Rally moved to its current location across the Common on the Carty Parade Field,  except for in 2007, when the Carty Parade Field was being re sodded. In 2009,  music returned to the Parkman Bandstand when we added a second stage. The Carty Stage continues to be our “main” stage, while the Parkman Stage is our “second” stage.

Permitting Problems

Boston Common is America’s oldest public ground and the place where rights to free speech and assembly were first established. Since 1992 MASS CANN/NORML’s Freedom Rally has been held on Boston Common. The city of Boston, under the leadership of Mayor Thomas Menino, has tried to stop the Freedom Rally by denying MASS CANN/NORML their rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

MASS CANN/NORML won an injunction forcing the City of Boston to issue a permit for their 1997 rally. After many years of abuse from petty parks officials regarding the permitting process; the city’s unconstitutional demands for cash and limits imposed on MASS CANN/NORML to the exclusion of all others (such as a limit of 10,000 attendees and 8 food vendors) forced MASS CANN/NORML into court. In granting the injunction Judge Cratsley described MASS CANN/NORML’s attempts to get permits as a “… tortured history.”

Also in 1997, in an act of obvious spite, the City sued MASS CANN/NORML and its president for $17,000 in damages to the Common and fines. MASS CANN/NORML had already paid the amount the city had asked for, almost $2,000, to clean the Common. The city decided to sue MASS CANN/NORML rather than bother to even ask them for the money. MASS CANN/NORML counter-sued pointing out that the City’s suit was prima facie evidence of the City’s continued interference despite the injunction. Both suits were summarily dismissed.

The 1998 rally permit process was similarly litigious. Massachusetts Superior Court hearings before Judge Carol Ball began in July, purposefully early to forefend a last minute rush. At the first hearing the City was ordered to produce a list of requirements MASS CANN/NORML would be have to meet in order to receive a permit. At the second hearing the judge told the City their requirements didn’t meet constitutional muster, ordered them to issue a permit, but mentioned that restrictions that were not unconstitutional were permissible.

The City issued a permit with many restrictions MASS CANN/NORML could or would not meet. The judge heard arguments and ordered all the restrictions MASS CANN/NORML could or would not acquiesce to be dropped. MASS CANN/NORML moved for summary judgment and the 1997 and 1998 suits were consolidated. On March 7, 2002 Justice Allan van Gestel found in MASS CANN/NORML’s favor and awarded a judgment of over $31,000.

Swinging at strike three in 2008, the city of Boston issued a permit for the nineteenth Freedom Rally that sought to illegally cut-off funding for the event by directing donations from food vendors at the rally away from MASS CANN/NORML and to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston instead. Again, on September 18, 2008, ACLU pro-bono attorney John Swomley testified in support of an injunction at a hearing before Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Carol Ball (who had granted the 1997 injunction). The city attorney presented no evidence and no written testimony. Judge Ball was very unhappy with the city’s permitting restrictions and while granting the injunction told the city attorney, “You people must be crazy.”