By Keith Coffman
BOULDER, Colo. (Reuters) - A judge upheld on Thursday the right of the University of Colorado to restrict outside visitors to its flagship campus for a day in a move school officials hope will squelch a huge marijuana smoke-in that has become an annual tradition.
The Boulder campus, located in one of the most liberal cities in Colorado, has warned it would no longer tolerate the annual gathering of pot smokers planned for Friday, which drew an estimated 10,000 people last year.
The event is held on April 20, or 4/20, a date corresponding with a numerical code widely known within the cannabis subculture as a symbol for all things marijuana.
The university's move comes as federal authorities are cracking down on some medical pot dispensaries in Colorado and several mostly western states. A total of 16 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana, despite opposition from the federal government.
Boulder District Judge Andrew Macdonald said at a hearing that the school's plan to bar visitors may be "dumb" or "great," but that he would not comment on its wisdom.
"The issue is whether the university has the authority to put reasonable restrictions on the use of their facilities," Macdonald said, in ruling that the college could take that action.
Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano testified that past efforts to halt the rally have failed, including turning on lawn sprinklers and a program that offered to pay students to identify anyone caught in photographs smoking marijuana at the event.
He also said the decade-old gathering "disrupts teaching and research" on the heart of campus.
Visitors who enter the campus without permission on Friday could face trespassing charges and a fine of $750, school officials said.
No one -- including students -- will be allowed on the field where the raucous, smoke-filled gathering has previously been held, DiStefano said.
Attorney Robert Corry, who represents medical marijuana businesses in Colorado, had filed a complaint seeking an injunction that would block the university from restricting access. The legal papers he filed said the gathering at the university conveyed an "anti-Prohibition message."
"If free speech isn't allowed on a college campus, where is it safe?" Corry told Reuters.
The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also objected to the university's action.
Boulder District Attorney Stanley Garnett, who recently gained acclaim among pot activists for voicing objections to a federal crackdown on Colorado medical cannabis dispensaries, told Reuters earlier this month his office was involved in efforts to control the University of Colorado rally.
"I'm telling the university that I'll prosecute whatever they send our way," Garnett said, adding that his office would be most aggressive in public safety cases such as fighting.
Boulder has a history of eclectic public events, including an annual event held for years in which naked people with carved pumpkins on their heads run through the streets, Garnett said.
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)