California appeals court: Citizens don’t have free-speech rights on store property

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Californians don't have the rights of free speech, assembly or petition under their state constitution at a privately owned, free-standing store, a state appeals court has ruled.

Progressive Campaigns, a company that gather signatures for initiative petitions, contended that under the California Constitution, citizens could assemble outside large stores and obtain signatures.

However, the Santa Rosa Trader Joe's, a large specialty retail store, objected to the presence of two Progressive signature-gatherers, whom the store claimed were harassing customers and blocking access to the store.

The store filed a complaint in state court, asking a judge to issue an injunction prohibiting employees or independent contractors of Progressive from trespassing on its private property. Progressive countered that it had the right to engage in expressive activity at the store.

In August 1998, a trial court judge issued an injunction prohibiting further solicitations of signatures at the store.

On July 8, the California appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling in Trader Joe's Company v. Progressive Campaigns.

Progressive had argued that it had the right to engage in free expression at the store under the California Supreme Court's 1979 decision in Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center. In that decision, the California high court ruled that individuals do have free-speech rights at a privately owned shopping mall. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the California high court's decision.

The California high court in Pruneyard reasoned that “to protect free speech and petitioning is a goal that surely matches the protecting of health and safety, the environment, aesthetics, property values and other societal goals that have been held to justify reasonable restrictions on private property rights.”

The state high court noted that “shopping centers … provide an essential and invaluable forum for exercising' free-expression rights.”

However, the California appeals court refused to extend the holding in Pruneyard to a free-standing store.

“Pruneyard instructs us to balance the competing interests of the property owner and of the society with respect to the particular property or type of property at issue to determine whether there is a state constitutional right to engage in the challenged activity,” the appeals court wrote.

The appeals court determined that the balance should be struck in favor of Trader Joe's. The court distinguished the free-standing store from a shopping mall, writing that “Trader Joe's is not a public meeting place and the society has no special interest in using it as such.” The court noted that Trader Joe's contained no plazas or central courtyards or any place conducive to petitioning.

The court concluded: “the Pruneyard balancing test leads us to conclude that the societal interest in using the Santa Rosa Trader Joe's as a forum for exercising free speech and petitioning activities does not outweigh Trader Joe's interest in exercising exclusive control over the use of its private property.”

Douglas Dexter, attorney for Trader Joe's, said: “The court's decision is in line with numerous other courts which have refused to extend the Pruneyard holding beyond the shopping mall.”

Dale Gronemeier, attorney for Progressive Campaigns, could not be reached for comment.