A California youth pastor who was arrested for violating a shopping mall’s ban on controversial conversations with strangers has brought his case up to the California Court of Appeal for consideration and is now awaiting a response.
While the Westfield Corporation, which owns the mall in Roseville, Calif., says its Courtesy Guidelines simply limit activities that have a "political, religious or other noncommercial purpose" to designated areas within the mall in order to "minimize congestion," the legal group representing Matthew Snatchko says the policy violates California’s free speech guarantees.
“Singling out religious speech for punishment violates our most basic principles of free expression,” says Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which has brought Snatchko’s case to the Third Appellate District Court of Appeal in Sacramento.
“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,” he adds.
The case, Snatchko v. Westfield LLC, et al., arose after Snatchko was arrested at the Roseville Galleria Mall in 2006 following his encounter with two other shoppers, with whom he was conversing about faith.
According to Westfield, mall security guards had told Snatchko on a number of occasions that he was violating the mall's Courtesy Guidelines by talking about religion with strangers. During one of his visits, the youth pastor was even given a copy of the guidelines, but he continued striking up conversations without applying for a permit or sticking to the designated areas.
"By roaming the mall and randomly approaching other mall visitors, plaintiff effectively circumvents any attempt by Westfield to reasonably regulate his expressive activities in the mall’s common areas," the company expressed in court documents.
The Pacific Justice Institute, however, argues that Snatchko had first obtained the shoppers’ permission to talk about faith and further insists that the mall’s “draconian rules” – which also include a ban on clothing with religious or political messages – are unconstitutional.
“It’s surprising that mall owners think they can arrest patrons for engaging in casual conversations,” says PJI Staff Attorney Matthew McReynolds, who submitted the appellate briefs.
“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,” he adds.
Despite PJI’s arguments, a Placer County Superior Court judge upheld the mall’s policy in 2008, ruling that the ban on controversial conversations with strangers didn’t violate freedom of speech.
In response, Snatchko and PJI appealed to the state’s Third Appellate District Court of Appeal and last month concluded written briefing at the court.
All parties in the case are now waiting for the court to schedule a date for oral arguments or to issue a ruling.
Listed as "friends of the court" for Snatchko are the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ and the Christian Legal Society.