No free speech

Wal-Mart has signature-gatherer arrested for trespassing

SIGNING OFF Ryan Crenshaw, right, and Philip Scholtz collect signatures at the Saturday Farmers’ Market for ballot initiatives.

SIGNING OFF Ryan Crenshaw, right, and Philip Scholtz collect signatures at the Saturday Farmers’ Market for ballot initiatives.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Halt-Mart: On April 6, a Wal-Mart-sponsored initiative in the Los Angeles County city of Inglewood that would have bypassed certain zoning laws to allow construction of a super Wal-Mart was soundly defeated by voters, even though the store poured $1 million into the effort, including the cost of signature gatherers like Ryan Crenshaw.

All Ryan Crenshaw of Ventura said he wanted when he was in Chico last week visiting relatives for the Easter holidays was to make a little extra cash collecting signatures for ballot initiatives.

Instead he got 10 hours in jail and a court date for a trespassing charge, courtesy of the Forest Avenue Wal-Mart, whose manager called Chico police because Crenshaw didn’t follow proper protocol when he set up his folding table with a patriotic tablecloth in front of the store.

Crenshaw, a 21-year-old political-science major at Moorepark Community College in Ventura County, said he and his buddy Phillip Scholtz, also 21, arrived at Wal-Mart around 10 a.m. to start gathering signatures, for which they are paid. Within about 10 minutes, he said, the store greeter, “a little old lady,” came out and asked if they were on the store “calendar.”

“I said that actually we’re not, but that there’s no one else here,” Crenshaw said.

About an hour later a female assitant manager, Kirsty Rogers, came out and told the signature gatherers they’d have to leave because they were not on the calendar.

Soon afterward evangelist Zeke Wheel and his associate Mary, who work under the name Heavenly Clowns and are on the Wal-Mart calendar, showed up with a box full of The Passion of the Christ pamphlets. Crenshaw said Wheel invited him and Scholtz to set up shop next to them.

But assistant manager Mick Kelly came out to put an end to the signature gathering by calling the police. At 2:14 p.m. two Chico police officers arrived.

“One cop says, ‘They asked you to leave; why not leave? It’s that simple,'” Crenshaw said.

“We were out there because the courts have ruled that this is a public forum where we have the right to assemble,” Crenshaw said he told the cops. “I told one of the officers that I know it’s my right to be there.”

One of the cops, Kevin Hass, said they would not arrest Crenshaw or Scholtz, but Assistant Manager Kelly, Crenshaw said, made a citizen’s arrest.

“He went back inside the store to call his higher-up and see if it was OK,” Crenshaw said. “Then he came back out with this fax he’d been sent—it was some sort of form that he tried to get me to sign. I’m not sure what it was, but I refused to sign it.”

Two days earlier, Crenshaw was arrested at Wal-Mart on charges of trespassing after store managers told him to cease and desist because he wasn’t on the store’s outside-solicitation calendar.

Courtesy Of Philip Scholtz

The Chico police officers, he said, played the classic good-cop/bad-cop routine. One suggested Crenshaw and Scholtz get a camera and photograph the arrest for posterity, which they did. The other cop, Crenshaw said, was cranky and complaining about what a waste of his time this all was.

Crenshaw took the rap so that Scholtz could get their car and personal belongings out of the Wal-Mart parking lot.

“At one point in the car, the nice cop said that if I promised to not go back [to Wal-Mart] he would talk his hot-headed partner into letting me go,” Crenshaw said.

Even though Crenshaw agreed, that never happened, and Crenshaw spent the next seven hours alone in the Chico holding cell before he was transferred to the Butte County Jail, where he spent the next three hours. He then bailed himself out.

Now he is forbidden from stepping foot on Wal-Mart property and he must return to Butte County April 23 for a court hearing.

There is some question as to whether Crenshaw or Wal-Mart is in the wrong. California courts have ruled that the free flow of information is protected at shopping centers, meaning signature gatherers can do their thing.

Assistant manager Rogers described Crenshaw and Scholtz as “obstinate” and noted “It’s dangerous to have two events going on at the same time. They were not supposed to be here because we had the Heavenly Clowns.”

Mary, one of the clowns in question, described Crenshaw and Scholtz as “very mellow” and “very professional.”

There is a sign on the outside wall that reads: “Wal-Mart apologizes for any inconvience caused by solicitors outside our store. We do not advocate their view or methods of expression. Their presence on our property is currently permitted by California Court decisions. If you object to the presence of the solicitor contact your state Assembly person.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who said Crenshaw’s case has yet to come across his desk, said a 1979 court ruling called Robins v. Pruneyard Shopping Center established such areas as the modern-day town square for the dissemination of free-speech matters including petitions.

However, with free-standing stores like Wal-Mart, the courts have yet to make a clear ruling as to whether signature solicitation is allowed without prior permission from the store’s owner. The stores may, “as long as it is reasonable,” establish restrictions on time, manner and place, Ramsey said.

Still, the law is far from black and white in the conflict between ballot signature collectors and a store like Wal-Mart, which ironically has used the state’s initiative process itself to help slide its stores past protesters in some California communities.

“It’s a case of free-speech versus private-property-rights issues," said local attorney Nels Christensen, who represented Waremart (now called WinCo) in a similar case five years ago. He said the 3rd District Appellate Court sided with the store, but the state Supreme Court "depublished" the ruling and then dropped the case altogether.