A local shopping mall should reconsider how it handles slogans
of protest First published: Thursday, March 6, 2003
Let's see if we have this right. Stores in Crossgates Mall will
sell custom-made T-shirts with civil, but clear, slogans protesting
a war with Iraq to anyone who wants them. Wearing those shirts
in the mall, though, is grounds for arrest.
Something is very wrong in the not-so-public square, even when,
as in this case, Crossgates subsequently withdrew the charges.
By now it's been established that malls are private property,
and that the usual constitutional rights to free speech and
free assembly don't apply the way they would on, say, the prototypical
Main Street. That's the way the law has been interpreted, much
as we dislike it.
An incident last December, then, when two dozen protesters carrying
anti-war signs were asked to leave the Guilderland mall was
bad enough, we suppose. It's what happened Monday that strains
even the pro-mall laws, and defies all common sense.
A 60-year-old man from Selkirk was arrested after refusing to
remove a shirt he had just purchased. "Peace on Earth,"
it said on its front. "Give Peace a Chance," it repeated
on the back. Stephen Downs, a lawyer for the state Commission
on Judicial Conduct, was engaging in what the mall regards as
Please. What if Mr. Downs were wearing a shirt that said "God
Bless America"? Or "Nuke Saddam"?
Or a shirt with one of those sexually suggestive slogans so
common in today's commercial culture?
Think about how the mall management might respond to any of
those incidents. Think about that and then tell us who was out
Crossgates sought to make a criminal act out of what stemmed
from a citizen's simple expression of opinion. The right to
express such opinions is at the core of what the Founding Fathers
sought to protect when they wrote the First Amendment.
A generation ago, black protesters in the South were arrested
when they refused to leave lunch counters that had previously
served only whites. Those people are now revered as the brave
forerunners of the civil rights movement. How different is their
action from what Mr. Downs did?
This case may not be over officially until Guilderland Town
Justice Kenneth Riddett formally dismisses the trespassing charge
against Mr. Downs. If so, let's hope the judge, in his wisdom
and in his robes, puts the matter of Mr. Downs, and whatever
he'll be wearing, in a less reactionary perspective.