In Van v. Home Depot, U.S.A., Inc. (— Cal.Rptr. 3d —, 2007 WL 2600816, Cal.App. 2 Dist., Sept. 11, 2007), a California Court of Appeal considered whether signature gathering in areas near the entrances of retail stores that are part of larger shopping centers was a form of protected speech that could not be prohibited by store owners.
The court ruled that those areas lack the characteristics of a public forum, that signature gathering in them is not protected speech, and that store owners may prohibit it.
Vernon Van (“Van”) was one of a class of individuals who gather voter signatures to qualify initiatives and referenda for the ballot, and register voters for upcoming elections. Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores (“Stores”) are retail chains with hundreds of locations in California, including some in malls or larger shopping centers. They each have policies regulating and restricting signature-gathering at their locations.
Van and the other signature gatherers filed suit after setting up tables at the entrances of stores located in large shopping centers and being ordered to leave the location by store management employees. They asserted that because the stores were part of larger retail developments, as opposed to stand-alone stores, their locations possessed the characteristics of public forums, and that signature gathering was therefore protected speech. The trial court granted summary judgment to the stores, and the signature gatherers appealed.
The central common areas of large, privately owned shopping centers have the characteristics of public forums where expressive activities are protected, the court said, citing Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980) 447 U.S.74. However, the court concluded that ruling does not extend to the areas immediately surrounding the entrances of individual retail stores which do not possess the characteristics of public forums, even when the stores are part of a larger shopping center.
In Albertson’s Inc., v. Young (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 122, the court found that to establish a right to gather signatures at the entrance of a specific store, “it must be shown that the particular location is impressed with the character of a traditional public forum,” and more specifically, that it is established as a place where “people choose to come and meet and talk and spend time.” The undisputed evidence showed that the areas near the entrances of the stores were not such places, the court said. In fact, those areas were generally used as extensions of the stores themselves, for displaying merchandise and encouraging purchases, and not as places where people congregated and talked.
The rights of the store owners to maintain control over those areas therefore outweighed any societal interest in using them for signature gathering or other forms of expression. As there was no triable issue of fact about whether the areas near the entrances lacked the characteristics of public forums, the trial court was correct to grant summary judgment to the stores. The judgment was affirmed.