California Court of Appeal Mulls Mall’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers” Rule

Sacramento, CA – The California Court of Appeal is considering the constitutionality of a Sacramento-area shopping mall’s attempt to prevent adult patrons from talking to each other about hot-button topics such as religion and politics.

The case arose after a youth pastor, Matthew Snatchko, was arrested at the Roseville Galleria Mall in 2006 for striking up a casual conversation with two other shoppers about faith. Although Snatchko had first obtained the shoppers’ permission to broach the subject, a nearby store employee disapproved and called mall security guards, who arrested Snatchko. Criminal charges were later dropped, but attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute filed suit to challenge the mall’s tight restrictions on speech.

Under the mall’s rules, shoppers are not allowed to engage in conversations about potentially controversial topics like religion or politics, unless they already know the person they are talking to. Another mall rule bans the wearing of any clothing with religious or political messages.

After a Placer County Superior Court judge upheld the mall’s rules in 2008, Pacific Justice Institute appealed to the Third Appellate District in Sacramento. Written briefing at the Court of Appeal concluded last week. The case is proceeding in state court and is based on state constitutional provisions because those provisions, unlike the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, extend free speech protections to some non-governmental settings like shopping malls.

PJI Staff Attorney Matthew McReynolds, who submitted the appellate briefs, has been mystified by the mall’s adherence to its draconian rules. “It’s surprising that mall owners think they can arrest patrons for engaging in casual conversations,” he said. “While a ‘don’t talk to strangers’ rule may be good for kids, enforcing it against adults is absurd, and we think it violates California’s free speech guarantees.”

PJI President Brad Dacus commented, “Singling out religious speech for punishment violates our most basic principles of free expression. If anyone can be arrested for wearing a Christian t-shirt or mentioning God in a shopping mall, we have lost not only our freedom, but our sanity as a society.”

PJI affiliate attorney Timothy Smith, of the Sacramento firm McKinley & Smith, served pro bono as Snatchko’s lead counsel in the trial court and continues to serve as part of the appellate team.