One mall under God

First Amendment in limbo at Westfield Galleria at Roseville

In any other public place, what Matthew Snatchko did would be protected by the First Amendment and should not have landed him in jail.

But shopping malls are funny places—kind of public, kind of private. And Snatchko, a youth minister with Lincoln-based Vine Life Ministries, found himself in a sort of First-Amendment limbo at the Westfield Galleria at Roseville a few years back.

According to court records, on May 8, 2006, Snatchko approached three young women in the mall and began to talk about God, asking, “If you die today, where do you think you’d go, heaven or hell?”

His lawyers insist the pastor had the women’s permission to speak with them. “The people he was talking to did not make any complaint to mall security,” said Snatchko’s lawyer Matthew McReynolds. (Snatchko himself did not respond to an SN&R interview request.)

The mall’s lawyers, on the other hand, say the young women appeared “nervous” to mall security guards. One security guard approached and began listening in on the group. “When they realized he was talking about God, they asked him to leave,” said McReynolds.

Westfield contends that this wasn’t the first time Snatchko had been asked to leave the premises for proselytizing, and that he’d been given a copy of the mall’s “courtesy guidelines,” which state that anyone wishing to talk about politics or religion inside the mall must apply for permission four days in advance.

But when the mall guard asked Snatchko to leave the property, he refused, saying he’d done nothing wrong. He was grabbed by another security guard, handcuffed and taken by police to the Roseville Police Department jail.

But the Placer County district attorney decided there was no case, and dropped the trespassing and assault charges against Snatchko.

He sued the mall, with free legal help from McReynolds and the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group “specializing in the defense of religious freedom.”

The Placer Superior Court found that the mall did have the right to impose “reasonable time, place, and manner” restrictions on religious speech and any other First Amendment activity. Snatchko began his appeal in 2008, in the 3rd District Court of Appeals in Sacramento.

Snatchko’s basic argument is that it’s unconstitutional for a shopping mall to prohibit adult patrons from talking to each other about controversial topics like religion or politics.

His lawyers agree that the mall has a right to regulate events or groups of people that might interfere with the free flow of traffic inside the mall, or might hurt business. And even in real public spaces, we expect for there to be restrictions and conditions, like permit requirements on rallies and demonstrations.

In many ways, shopping-center owners want you to think of the mall as a public place, as a sort of surrogate downtown, where people hang out and interact with each other. Malls are sometimes neighborhoods onto themselves, and often built at great public expense. For example, Westfield Galleria at Roseville received more than $20 million in infrastructure money from the city of Roseville.

Snatchko’s lawyers argue that “the Galleria Mall has made itself the functional equivalent of a traditional public forum, such as a public park or street.” Over the years, the courts have found that private malls do often serve as a sort of public space, and that the First Amendment does reach into them.

Westfield’s lawyer Stephen Norris declined to speak about the case, as did Westfield spokesperson Katy Dickey.

But in court briefs, Westfield officials acknowledge that state law does require shopping malls to respect and accommodate First Amendment activity, but say there are limits.

“The plaintiffs chosen method of engaging in expressive activities is to roam the mall, confronting patrons at random and engaging them in discussions about his religious beliefs. [This] effectively circumvents any attempt by Westfield to reasonably regulate his expressive activities,” one court brief reads.

But McReynolds says it’s not reasonable, even in a quasi-public place, to restrict the right to talk to people. “Basically, Snatchko was arrested for engaging in a casual conversation about God.”

The appellate court heard oral arguments in the Snatchko case on June 28. A decision could come any time.