Roseville, Calif., shopping mall

A court decision written by a candidate for chief justice of the California Supreme Court has torpedoed rules established by a shopping mall to regulate casual conversations among customers.

“The [mall’s] rules treat all applicants for noncommercial expressive activity the same way, but the rules are not content neutral because they prohibit or restrict speech unrelated to the mall’s interests while permitting speech that is related to the mall’s interest. The rules are content based,” said the opinion from Associate Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

And those rules, the judge explained, are presumptively unconstitutional.

Get “Back Fired,” by William J. Federer, which shows how the faith that gave birth to tolerance is no longer tolerated!

According to the Pacific Justice Institute, which represented a youth pastor targeted by mall enforcement of its speech rules, the case arose after a Matthew Snatchko was arrested at the Roseville Galleria Mall in 2007 for striking up a casual conversation with other shoppers about faith.

Although Snatchko had obtained the shoppers’ permission to broach the subject, a nearby store employee disapproved and called mall security guards, who arrested Snatchko. Criminal charges were later dropped, but attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute filed suit to challenge the mall’s tight restrictions on speech.

Pacific Justice said that under the mall’s rules, shoppers are not allowed to engage in conversations about potentially controversial topics such as religion or politics unless they already know the person they are talking to. Another mall rule bans the wearing of any clothing with religious or political messages.

The new ruling from the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento struck down the mall rules as unconstitutionally vague and restrictive of free speech. The court also awarded costs on appeal to Snatchko and indicated he would be able to collect damages and attorney’s fees. The case now heads back to the trial court for implementation of the appellate court’s decision.

“We are very pleased with this landmark ruling by the California Court of Appeals that vindicates the right to engage in casual conversations about faith without fear of being arrested,” said Brad Dacus, president of PJI. “This is a great victory for free speech and common sense.”

“The rules are unconstitutional on their face under article I, section 2 of the California Constitution, the California constitutional provision which guarantees the right to free speech,” the court ruling found.

The court noted the seemingly innocuous behavior that prompted the mall to arrest the youth pastor.

“Hoping for opportunities to share his Christian faith, Matthew Snatchko, a youth pastor, often went to a large regional shopping mall – the Galleria in Roseville, owned, operated and managed by Westfield (hereafter the Galleria or the mall). While he was in the common area of the mall one evening, Snatchko approached three young women in their late teens, asked them if they were willing to talk with him, and upon receiving their consent, engaged them in conversation, which included with their permission his sharing with them principles of his faith. He did not raise his voice or otherwise create a scene. He did not distribute any literature. He did not solicit money or other contributions of any kind. He did not ask them to join his church. He did not block mall patrons,” the court said.

“Nevertheless, a nearby store employee called the mall’s security office and requested they investigate Snatchko’s actions. A security officer responded and observed what he believed to be nervous behavior by the young women. Snatchko did not observe any expression or conduct by the women indicating they were nervous or that they did not want to continue the conversation. It appeared to Snatchko that the security officer stopped and listened to his conversation with the women.”

The court continued, “The security officer approached and asked Snatchko to stop what he was doing or leave the mall. When Snatchko refused, the security officer called for backup. A senior security officer responded and instructed Snatchko to leave. As Snatchko continued to refuse, the security officers forcibly placed Snatchko under citizen’s arrest, handcuffed him and escorted him to the security office where they turned him over to Roseville police.”

However, the charges later were dismissed and the Placer County district attorney stipulated that Snatchko was factually innocent of the charges.

Snatchko then filed the court action to challenge the speech rules.

“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,” the court scolded. “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.”

Katy Dickey, a Westfield spokeswoman, told the Sacramento Bee, “We are disappointed that the court of appeals determined that the rules in question did not satisfy the required legal standard for reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. We are reviewing the court’s decision and will consider our options….including appeal to the California Supreme Court.”

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