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Crossgates crosses the line

The management of Crossgates Mall seems to be contending that the First Amendment does not apply on its private property – and that may be the case. Most people would be prepared to concede that mall management has some right to regulate disruptive behavior. But none of that excuses the mall’s absurd and oppressive decision on Monday to press trespass charges against a 61-year-old man, Stephen Downs, who refused to take off a T-shirt which said "Peace on Earth" on the front and "Give Peace a Chance" on the back.

Those are pretty unremarkable sentiments, most closely associated with the angelic host on Christmas night and John Lennon. Obviously, Guilderland police would have no right to arrest someone for wearing that shirt on a public street. On the other hand, any private home owner could tell someone to leave his or her house for any reason, including wearing a purportedly objectionable shirt.

Malls fall into a gray area between a public and private place. It is understandable for them to discourage political demonstrations – although Crossgates’ objectionable actions Monday provoked and justified just such a demonstration there the next day. It would be reasonable for it to seek to discourage people from wearing obscene T-shirts, or obviously hateful ones advocating, say, mass murder of an ethnic or religious group.

But even the most zealous defenders of private property rights should recognize limits on how far a mall can go in regulating speech. If, for example, a few people are discussing politics at the food court, it would be unreasonable and intrusive for a mall security guard to try to shut them up or throw them out, and threaten them with arrest if they didn’t comply.

Crossgates management is not part of some pro-war conspiracy, but is merely interested in maintaining what it calls a "shopping environment." Even by this cynical standard, its actions Monday were counterproductive, sparking much more political protest than any T-shirt. It would now be both right and prudent for the company to apologize and drop charges against the peace-minded alleged trespasser.