Crossgates crosses the line

A local shopping mall should reconsider how it handles slogans of protest First published: Thursday, March 6, 2003
Let’s see if we have this right. Stores in Crossgates Mall will sell custom-made T-shirts with civil, but clear, slogans protesting a war with Iraq to anyone who wants them. Wearing those shirts in the mall, though, is grounds for arrest.

Something is very wrong in the not-so-public square, even when, as in this case, Crossgates subsequently withdrew the charges.

By now it’s been established that malls are private property, and that the usual constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly don’t apply the way they would on, say, the prototypical Main Street. That’s the way the law has been interpreted, much as we dislike it.

An incident last December, then, when two dozen protesters carrying anti-war signs were asked to leave the Guilderland mall was bad enough, we suppose. It’s what happened Monday that strains even the pro-mall laws, and defies all common sense.

A 60-year-old man from Selkirk was arrested after refusing to remove a shirt he had just purchased. "Peace on Earth," it said on its front. "Give Peace a Chance," it repeated on the back. Stephen Downs, a lawyer for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, was engaging in what the mall regards as disruptive conduct.

Please. What if Mr. Downs were wearing a shirt that said "God Bless America"? Or "Nuke Saddam"?

Or a shirt with one of those sexually suggestive slogans so common in today’s commercial culture?

Think about how the mall management might respond to any of those incidents. Think about that and then tell us who was out of line.

Crossgates sought to make a criminal act out of what stemmed from a citizen’s simple expression of opinion. The right to express such opinions is at the core of what the Founding Fathers sought to protect when they wrote the First Amendment.

A generation ago, black protesters in the South were arrested when they refused to leave lunch counters that had previously served only whites. Those people are now revered as the brave forerunners of the civil rights movement. How different is their action from what Mr. Downs did?

This case may not be over officially until Guilderland Town Justice Kenneth Riddett formally dismisses the trespassing charge against Mr. Downs. If so, let’s hope the judge, in his wisdom and in his robes, puts the matter of Mr. Downs, and whatever he’ll be wearing, in a less reactionary perspective.