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Political Group Can Sue Over Cook-Off Ousting

(CN) - The organizers of a chili cook-off in Nevada violated the First Amendment by excluding members of a political group who attended the event to gather signatures, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled.

Janelle Dietrich attempted to gather political petition signatures at the 2002 Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, Nev. The organizers asked her group to leave, and police escorted her away from the cook-off, where she was unable to gather signatures.

The group returned for the final three days of the event with the blessing of the event's vice president. They gathered signatures in their attempt to throw out four members of the city council in neighboring Reno.

After a story ran in the Friday evening paper about the incident, police cited Dietrich for driving past a "road closed" sign. They ignored her explanation that a firefighter allowed her to pass.

The district court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff's First Amendment claims. But the 9th Circuit disagreed, ruling that Dietrich's group was thrown out on the first day of the event solely on the basis of what they said.

"Defendants' ... complete exclusion of Plaintiff on Thursday," Judge Graber wrote, "for no reason other than the asserted right of the permittees to exclude anyone expressing a political message, violated the First Amendment."

Graber also ruled that the police did not retaliate against Dietrich by citing her for the traffic violation, because there is no evidence that the police officers read the newspaper article.

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