Update (9:45 a.m.): This story has been updated to include comments from Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton.
The co-founder of the organization that successfully petitioned to add medical marijuana to next week’s primary ballot was forcefully removed from a public forum Monday evening by the Rogers County sheriff.
Chip Paul — co-founder and chairman of Oklahomans for Health, the group responsible for State Question 788 — was attending a forum about medical marijuana at the Claremore Conference Center when he was marched out of the facility by Sheriff Scott Walton.
According to Paul’s version of events, he and his wife arrived at the forum late and found seats in the back. Two sheriff’s deputies were standing behind them, and at one point, Paul said he shook the hand of one and briefly chatted with him.
Later on, Paul said, he quietly expressed frustration with some of the information being presented. At that point, according to Paul, Walton confronted him.
“He grabbed me and was in my face, saying, ‘If this is frustrating, you can get out,’” Paul said.
Paul said he replied that he would remain quiet. “That’s when (Walton) grabbed me by the neck and proceeded to escort me from the building. He rammed my head into a door — I don’t know if that was purposeful or not.”
Video of the altercation shows Walton leading Paul out of the facility with both hands around his neck. As Paul is directed through a set of double doors, it appears that his forehead is pushed into one of them.
“I feel like, in my mind, he assaulted me,” Paul said. “I was doing nothing. I have as much right to be there as he does.”
Walton rebutted Paul’s version of the night. He said a large group of SQ 788 supporters were rowdy and “disruptive to the speakers.”
He said multiple announcements were made indicating there would be time for questions and discussion at the end of the forum, announcements he said were ignored by SQ 788 advocates.
“I’m not regretful for my actions there,” Walton said. “We were to the point that there was consideration of just pulling the plug on the whole meeting.”
Walton said Paul repeatedly raised his hand even after organizers asked that questions be held. He said Paul also openly laughed at speakers. Then, Walton said, he saw him say something to a reserve deputy, who motioned to Paul to turn back around.
Walton said he then approached Paul and politely asked him to step outside so the two could chat, but Paul kept his hands in his lap and did not engage. He said he continued to request that Paul be respectful and to step outside with him but that Paul kept talking aloud, at which point Walton grabbed him and started toward the doors.
“As we approached that door, his left hand’s free. I’m hardly applying any pressure. We were walking up to the door and he balked just a little bit,” Walton said, indicating that Paul’s movement contributed to his head’s hitting the door.
“It was no intention to slam his head into a door in a room full of people. If my intention was to ram his head through that door, there’d be some physical evidence to show that I did it.”
Paul said he did raise his hand in an attempt to ask questions of the presenters.
“I certainly didn’t try to precipitate the altercation in any way, shape or form,” he said.
The goal of the forum, which had been promoted by the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office, was to allow voters to “become familiar with the absolute facts” about SQ 788, according to a Facebook post from the Sheriff’s Office.
“There is a lot of confusion about whether this proposed legislation is actually designed to provide a medical alternative using marijuana, or if it is merely an attempt by recreational marijuana supporters and business owners to convince Oklahomans to pass legislation that will create serious health, safety, and economic concerns for our entire State,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote.
Speakers scheduled for the forum included District Attorney Matt Ballard, local physician Dr. Mark Paul Bishop, Drug Enforcement Agency officials and Walton.
In a statement to the Tulsa World, Ballard said he participated with the goal of helping educate voters.
“People absolutely have the right to speak their minds; preferably while showing respect to others,” Ballard said. “The majority of people at the forum were engaged and respectful. A handful decided to be disrespectful to the entire group, which is unfortunate but does not detract from the value the forum provided to the community.”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said in a statement Tuesday that Walton violated Paul’s First Amendment rights in a criminal manner.
“The violent actions of the Rogers County Sheriff signal a disturbing reliance on government force to silence political speech,” Kiesel said.
“Law enforcement must use force only under the most serious and threatening circumstances, a standard that Mr. Paul’s behavior did not even come close to meeting on Monday night. Removing Mr. Paul from a public forum for expressing a First Amendment protected political view was wholly inappropriate. Doing so violently is criminal.
“The Rogers County Sheriff must be held immediately accountable for his assault on a private citizen,” Kiesel continued.
”Further, the authorities in Rogers County must commit themselves publicly to policies that protect, not stifle free political thought. Indeed, these authorities have taken an oath to do just that. Instead, however, of performing their duty to protect the Constitution, the government of Rogers County has violently assaulted an individual with the express purpose of stopping him from exercising his rights before he could even have a chance to do so. This is a serious violation of the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions and likely a violation of the criminal code. Failure to take appropriate action against the Rogers County Sheriff would send a clear message that authoritarian government actors have greater in Rogers County than the citizens they ostensibly serve.”
Law enforcement officials, health care providers and marijuana advocates have fiercely debated whether the language of SQ 788 is too broad. Proponents say the plan is modeled after other states’ laws. Opponents, including Gov. Mary Fallin, have said its passage would be akin to full legalization of recreational marijuana.
Oklahoma’s primary, when the medical marijuana question will be on the ballot, is June 26.