Pass the petition, go to jail

John Melander didn’t want any problems. Last week he introduced himself to a manager at the Safeway on 19th and S streets and said he intended to gather signatures for two proposed ballot measures outside the store. Melander, working as a paid signature gatherer for a political consultant, was trying to drum up support for two ballot measures that would thwart government’s power to take private property through eminent domain. But he says the petition’s subject was not a factor in what happened next.

He was referred by Safeway to the property manager, Petrovich Development Co. Melander said the Petrovich people told him if he tried gathering signatures, they’d have him arrested.

“Political petitioning is supposed to be a protected right of free speech,” Melander complained to SN&R.

Well, yes and no. Signature gathering is a First Amendment right. But the California courts have gone back and forth on the question of where it can be exercised.

One important California Supreme Court case found that shopping centers can’t prohibit signature gatherers, though they can place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of such activities. A later case says that free-standing stores can run petitioners off with impunity.

In each instance, the court was trying to figure out how to protect the free-speech rights of political petitioners in a society that no longer has much of a public realm.

“What are the modern equivalents of the town square?” asked attorney Roger Myers, who has followed the case law. “Where do people need to go nowadays to exercise this fundamental right?”

The mall, of course, along with other surrogate town squares, shopping centers and retail strips. Petrovich Development Co. didn’t return SN&R’s calls.

Myers said Melander’s case is an interesting one, and he might have a legitimate beef. But Melander said for now he’ll just look for another spot. “If I wasn’t six weeks behind on my bills already, I’d go down there and make them arrest me,” he explained.