FREE SPEECH
-- The California Court of Appeal has decided, in Snatchko v. Westfield LLC,
that the owner of a shopping mall called the Roseville Galleria, north of
Sacramento, violated the speech rights of a Christian youth pastor when its
staff turned him over to police for having a religious conversation with two
other mall patrons. The decision is significant statewide for several reasons.

First, it
extends and reinforces a line of cases from the state’s supreme court and other
appellate courts affirming the California constitution’s broader protection for
speech—one which, unlike the federal First Amendment, forbids censorship by
shopping mall proprietors as well as government agencies.  In this state, if private enterprise
recreates a multi-merchant environment projecting a Main Street ambiance within
its walls, inviting patrons to stroll, relax and linger as they might on a
downtown city sidewalk, then it may no more act to control what the patrons may
say or hear than might city officials themselves.  Reasonable rules on the time, place and manner of speech can
be enforced to prevent congestion or disturbances of the peace, for example,
but not a ban on discussing certain topics, or (as was the case in the
Roseville Galleria) a ban on discussing any topic but shopping. The court found that this
grotesquely totalitarian gag failed to meet even the most relaxed legal
standard for justifying speech curbs.


Westfield?s
Rules burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further its
legitimate safety and convenience interests.  The Rules prohibit strangers from consensually engaging in
peaceful spontaneous political or religious discussions even if they do
not:  converse loudly, attract a
crowd, block any ingress/egress to the mall, its tenants or their activities,
distribute any literature, hold any signs or placards, request signatures for
any petition, solicit any contributions, or compromise any fire or other safety
precautions.  In other words, the
Rules prohibit unplanned classic pure free speech between strangers who
mutually agree to converse and who cause no disturbance of the peace or
otherwise burden, interfere with, or impose additional risk on the operation or
enjoyment of the mall. 

Moreover,
by prohibiting or restricting all speech between strangers on topics that are
not related to the activities of the mall, its tenants or their sponsored
activities, the Rules not only prohibit strangers from consensually engaging in
peaceful political or religious discussions as we have described, they also
prohibit even casual conversation between teenagers who go to the mall to meet,
socialize, and talk with other teenagers. 
Spur-of-the-moment conversations between strangers who go to the mall to
exercise in the common areas are banned. 
The Rules forbid strangers to converse in order to while away the time
as their spouses shop.  Under the
language of the Rules, strangers could not choose to engage in impromptu
chit-chat while they stand in a check-out line in a common area.  
 

Another
interesting aspect of the decision is its author, Associate Justice Tani
Cantil-Sakauye of the Third District Court of Appeal.  Governor Schwarzenegger recently nominated her to replace
Ronald George to head the state supreme court as Chief Justice of
California.  For those who care
about free speech protection, it is reassuring to think that George’s high
level of solicitude for that right would be upheld by his successor.

 

But the
most striking—and discouraging— element of the case is the repression that led
to it.  Public declarations of
religious adherence get increasingly less respect from the powers that be in
California, be they governmental or commercial.  The Roseville Galleria case is reminiscent of a conflict
down the Central Valley in Modesto, where in mid-2008 a Christian lay preacher
of the fire-and-brimstone school of proselytizing, Kevin Borden, was ousted
from a downtown block-long plaza that had been rented to a theater for its
Saturday night programs.  His loud
(but not mechanically amplified) jeremiads were considered not only a deterrent
to theater patrons but a nuisance to nearby merchants and open-air restaurant
patrons dining within fenced-off portions of sidewalk.  Borden filed a federal court lawsuit
against the city, arguing that its interests in privatizing a streetscape for
revenue could not trump citizens’ rights peaceably—although perhaps
annoyingly—to speak in a classic public forum.  The city promptly settled, implicitly agreeing that it could
not in effect enforce a speech-free street zone on behalf of commerce.

 

The
Roseville and Modesto episodes are reminders that business interests, normally
thought of as socially conservative, will not hesitate to banish religious
expression—and seek official backup in doing so—when they think it might
alienate customers.  Given business
priorities overall, that is perhaps unsurprising.

 



But
government has no such priorities, and no such excuses.  And yet its increasingly tin ear for the
legitimacy of religious views in the “marketplace of ideas,” ranging from
insensitivity to outright hostility, can be sobering, even depressing.  Items:

  • The City of
    Oakland, enforcing an ordinance that has been upheld by a federal district
    court judge, arrested, prosecuted and jailed Walter Hoye, a Baptist pastor, for
    peaceably handing out anti-abortion literature outside an abortion clinic, thus
    violating the ordinance’s eight-foot stay-away bubble zone around clinic
    visitors. Hoye carried a sign that read, "Jesus loves you and your baby.
    Let us help you!" As women approached the door, he asked them, "May I
    talk to you about alternatives to the clinic?"
  • A Merced
    elementary school forced a sixth grader to stop wearing a t-shirt that, without
    harrowing language or images, opposed abortion; the school district has just
    settled the parent’s legal challenge rather than face it in federal court.
  • San Diego
    County officials withdrew a cease-and-desist order issued to a pastor who held
    a small Bible study in his home, apologizing for intrusive questions about the
    meetings. For five years the pastor had hosted the sessions for about fifteen
    people. When a neighbor’s visitor filed a complaint about parking overflow,
    county officials questioned the pastor’s wife about the nature of the meetings,
    asking whether participants said “Amen” or “Praise the Lord.”
  • UCLA,
    responding to media pressure, reversed an official’s decision and agreed to
    allow a graduating student, Christina Popa, to thank Jesus in her personal
    statement. Popa said she was told by a faculty adviser, who had been selected
    to read aloud students' personal statements at the department's commencement,
    that she would instead read the reference to "my Lord and Savior Jesus
    Christ" as simply "God."
  • Yuba
    Community College settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of a student, ending a
    campus policy that required students to obtain a permit to exercise "free
    speech" during two allotted hours per week.  Ryan Dozier had been threatened with arrest and expulsion if
    he continued sharing the gospel on campus between classes.
  • Riverside
    County jury prosecuted two anti-abortion activists on charges of disturbing the
    peace and obstructing a peace officer in a November 2007 incident. Joey Cox,
    bothers Jason and James Conrad, and five other members of an anti-abortion
    group visited Chaffey College to peaceably hold signs and hand out pro-life
    literature. All eight of the visitors, including their signs and literature
    tables, were confined to a space too small to contain them. Cox said that when
    he went to the campus police station to ask who issued this restriction, he was
    escorted behind locked doors, shoved against a wall, handcuffed, and searched
    by three officers.  The Conrad brothers
    were taken to trial, but acquitted by the jury.
  • In a
    relatively little-noticed unpublished opinion in 2007, the U.S. Ninth Circuit
    Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that Oakland officials were
    entitled to threaten a group of Christian employees with termination if they
    insisted on using a lunchroom bulletin board to post the following notice in
    response to a posted announcement about the formation of a gay
    and lesbian
    association:
    “Preserve
    Our Workplace with Integrity.
    Good News
    Employee Associations is a forum for people of Faith to express their views on
    the contemporary issues of the day. With
    respect for the Natural Family,
    Marriage and Family
    values. If you
    would like to be a part of preserving integrity in the Workplace call Regina
    Rederford @xxx-xxxx or Robin Christy @xxx-xxxx.”
  • Just three
    weeks after that decision was quietly filed, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside,
    without a hearing, an earlier Ninth Circuit decision upholding the right of a
    high school in Poway to punish student Tyler Harper for a far more confrontational
    response to perceived gay activism. 
    As summarized by supreme court reporter Tony Mauro, “Harper was
    suspended by school officials for wearing a T-shirt to school in 2004 with the
    messages 'I will not accept what God has condemned,' and ‘Homosexuality is
    shameful. Romans 1:27.’ He wore the shirt on the school district’s ‘Day of
    Silence,’ meant to encourage tolerance of gays. Students were allowed to wear
    T-shirts conveying pro-gay messages. School officials, claiming that Harper’s
    ‘negative’ message could be disruptive, suspended him after he refused to take
    off the shirt.”

 The point is not that Christians or
other religious advocates are correct or even highly representative in calling
abortion or homosexuality immoral; the evidence seems to show public opinion
trending well away from these convictions.  The point is that in our system anyone has the right to
think and say anything is immoral, no matter whom it offends, without fear of
governmental sanction or legal liability. 
The same goes for speech urging a particular set of beliefs or way of
life as the best, or exclusive, path to worthiness.

 
 

Freedom of religion is not only co-equal
in linkage with freedom of speech and press under the First Amendment, it is its more hard-earned
core.  The repression of speech and
press remembered and dreaded by our constitutional founders tended to boil down
to the silencing of one or two men (pamphleteers and printers) at a time on
behalf of one man or woman—the monarch. 
For the victims this censorship could be painful, even fatal, but
incurring such punishment was easily avoidable in a society with few private
orators and writers. In contrast, the elevation of one religion to official
status, or the persecution of other creeds, tended to marginalize, terrorize or
even annihilate people by the thousands, or tens of thousands, and there was no
way to avoid this scourge but by denying who you were.  It was the recurrent plague of European
history, and the virus survives.

 
 

This is the lesson forgotten, or never
learned, by those we see today seeking to use government either to exalt and
arm religious belief with official muscle—or to dismiss and disable it
altogether from playing its part in keeping conscience, decency and charity
alive in our unpretty world.