Roseville, Calif., shopping mall
Arguments have moved to the appellate court level in a California case in which a man who talked to two willing strangers in a shopping mall was arrested because the subject of the conversation was God.
Matthew Snatchko, who works with youth at his church, was interrupted in the middle of the conversation by a security guard. A second guard joined the confrontation and told Snatchko he was being placed under citizen’s arrest for “trespassing.”
The pastor said he agreed to leave but instead, the guards grabbed him, roughly shoved him against a storefront window and handcuffed him tightly enough to draw blood. Snatchko later was taken to the police station where he was booked on charges of battery and trespassing.
A short time later the charges were dropped, but the Pacific Justice Institute decided to pursue a case against the mall over the impact of the policy on free speech.
After a Placer County Superior Court judge in 2008 affirmed the mall’s regulations, an appeal was launched to the 3rd Appellate District in Sacramento, and the briefs have just now been completed for that court’s review.
“It’s surprising that mall owners think they can arrest patrons for engaging in casual conservations,” said PJI Staff Attorney Matthew McReynolds. “While a ‘don’t talk to strangers’ rule may be good for kids, enforcing it against adults is absurd, and we think it violates California’s free speech guarantees.”
The case is being pursued under the state’s constitutional provision for free speech, which extends protections to private locations, because the First Amendment to the Constitution deals directly with government restrictions.
McReynolds said had the case been argued in federal court, it would have had to focus on the discriminatory nature of the mall’s restrictions.
“Singling out religious speech for punishment violates our most basic principles of free expression,” said PJI President Brad Dacus. “If anyone can be arrested for wearing a Christian T-shirt or mentioning God in a shopping mall, we have lost not only our freedom, but our sanity as a society.”
PJI affiliate attorney Timothy Smith of the Sacramento firm McKinley & Smith served pro bono as Snatchko’s lead counsel in the trial court and continues to serve as part of the appellate team.
McReynolds told WND the case focuses on the “draconian” limits set by the mall that were used to arrest the youth pastor. While those charges were dropped, the result of that case wasn’t a court-adjudicated precedent that could be used to protect others.
He said while reasonable regulations certainly are allowed, such as volume limits, targeting speech for banishment because of its subject is not.
“What they cannot do and did in this case [is target] political and religious speech,” he said. “They originally chose to arrest the youth pastor for striking up a casual conversation. Since then, they’ve dug in their heels and are standing firm in their belief they can do whatever they want.”
Oral arguments haven’t been scheduled by the court in the case, and there’s no time frame available yet for when a decision might be reached, McReynolds said.
But PJI’s brief to the court explained the issue.
“The underlying interest of defendants clearly relates to content. While the act of speaking is not generally prohibited, the act of speaking a particular message without a permit is,” the brief said. “Defendants argue that if they do not disagree with the message of the speech, and if the applications are accepted on a first come, first selected basis, the regulation is content neutral.
“Even if the defendants determined that the recipients of the speech might be uncomfortable due to the speech, such a basis for restricting plaintiffs speech is not content neutral.”
The mall’s regulations, besides disallowing commercial speech and speech about religion or politics, also include an exception for those subjects if a speaker knew the other person previously.
“Under the exemption, the plaintiff would have been allowed to have the same conversation in the same exact place if only he had previously met the people with whom he was speaking,” the brief challenged.
“The notion that an individual is not allowed to speak with a stranger about a non-commercial topic without first having their speech examined is preposterous, and is truly silencing in every sense of the word,” the brief said.
The mall’s rules require “a submission of the subject matter of the spoken or written speech,” the brief continued. “Defendants’ licensing process as a whole has a great deal to do with speakers’ message. Not only does the application process require an examination of the subject matter, but plaintiff was actually referred to the licensing application process only after the security guard listened to the content of plaintiff’s speech.”
Officials with Westfield Group, the corporation that owns the mall, did not respond to a WND message requesting comment.
The company’s website says it entered the U.S. market in 1977 by purchasing a single shopping center and today has 55 centers across the U.S. in key markets such as northern California, Chicago, southern Florida, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York, San Diego and Washington.
“The Westfield Group is the world’s largest listed retail property group by equity market capitalization. The Group has interests in and operates a global portfolio of 119 high-quality regional shopping centers in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, valued at more than $62 billion. Westfield works with over 23,600 retailers across more than 10 million square meters of retail space,” it boasts.
Pacific Justice said Snatchko originally was confronted during a casual conversation with two other shoppers about faith when a store employee listened to the conversation and alerted mall security guards.
Besides the ban on conversations with strangers about religion or politics, the mall also bans any clothing with religious or political messages.