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California Court of Appeal mulls Westfield Group’s anti-evangelism rule

An evangelist went to the Roseville Galleria and ended up in handcuffs
By: Josh Fernandez The Press Tribune
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Talking to strangers about religion in a shopping mall might be considered annoying, but is it unlawful? That very question is being argued right now in court. Timothy Smith, an affiliate attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute – an organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom – presented oral arguments to California’s 3rd Appellate District on Monday in a case testing the constitutionality of the Roseville Galleria Mall’s attempt to prevent religious speech on its property. The case began in 2007, when Roseville youth pastor Matthew Snatchko was arrested in the Galleria for striking up a religious discussion with two other shoppers. The shoppers willfully engaged in Snatchko’s conversation, but a mall employee watching the religious discourse called security, who then ordered Statchko to leave. After Snatchko refused to exit, he was handcuffed and arrested. Snatchko was released and never charged with a crime, but, with the help of the Justice Institute, he decided to challenge the legality of restricting religious conversation at a mall. Turns out, it’s a touchy subject with a few gray areas. In 2008, a California superior court ruled in favor of the Galleria, saying that the mall’s ban on controversial conversations with strangers didn’t violate freedom of speech. But early this year Snatchko and the Justice Institute appealed that ruling to the state’s 3rd Appellate District in Sacramento. Justice Institute president Brad Dacus said that California courts see the mall as a quasi-public setting, which means that the First Amendment reigns supreme. “The court has determined that the open, common areas of a shopping mall … have, in fact, taken the place of the town square,” Dacus said. “Our courts in California have held those to be areas where the rights of the individual cannot be censored the same as an actual business or other private settings.” Drew Herrick, a 23-year-old employee at the Galleria, agrees with the Justice Institute. He believes that when it comes to speech, people should be allowed to say what they want in the mall – as long as they’re not causing a commotion. “We are (protected by) freedom of speech, so you have to draw the line somewhere,” he said. “I don’t think you should be able to kick somebody out of the mall unless they’re causing a scene – not someone who is just talking.” The Westfield Corporation, which owns the Galleria where Herrick works, says its Courtesy Guidelines limit activities that have a “Political, religious or other noncommercial purpose” to designated areas within the mall to “minimize congestion.” Westfield spokeswoman Katy Dickey was unwilling to comment on the case specifically. As the trial inches forward, Dacus sees a glimmer of hope for his client Snatchko. “Our attorney Tim Smith did an absolutely fantastic job,” Dacus said of the oral arguments that happened on Monday. “We should know within 90 days what the outcome is. That said, the court seemed very uncomfortable with the mall’s existing policy in that it is overly broad to limit a wide range of expression.” Westfield attorney Stephen Norris of the Encino-based firm Horvitz & Levy said he is unable to comment on the case while it is still in progress. “We are hopeful that the court will rule favorably,” Dacus said. “Not just for our client, but for everyone of faith in California who doesn’t wish to have happen to them what happened to Matthew.” Josh Fernandez can be reached at joshf@goldcountrymedia.com