New Lawsuit Challenges Mall’s Restrictions on Sharing Faith

Bakersfield, California – A new lawsuit has just been filed against speech restrictions at Valley Plaza Mall in Bakersfield.

Attorneys for Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) represent Debra Moore, a senior citizen who likes to invite people to her church and share free gospel tracts in public places. Last August, she handed out a few of the tracts at Valley Plaza Mall when she was approached by mall security and management. Although Moore was not selling anything or asking for donations, she was accused of “soliciting.” She was then given a retailer application and told that she must submit the application and pay a fee of approximately $250 each time she wanted to hand out a tract.

The application asks for extensive information not relevant to Moore, such as business plan, revenue, and other financial information.

After a few months of demand letters and interactions between PJI and attorneys for the mall, the latter confirmed no free literature may be distributed without the application and hefty fee. The mall also reserves the right, through its code of conduct, to exclude upon threat of arrest anyone who it does not believe is contributing to a pleasant environment.

Matthew McReynolds, a Senior Staff Attorney for PJI who filed the suit this week, noted, “The mall’s position is that free speech is only free when it’s spoken, not written, and when the mall thinks it is ‘pleasant’ speech. Those restrictions are fundamentally incompatible with the California Constitution.”

Unlike most states, the free speech provision of the California Constitution has been interpreted for decades to extend speech rights to large shopping malls. In 2010, PJI attorneys won the landmark case Snatchko v. Westfield LLC, which vindicated the speech rights of a youth pastor who had been arrested at a Sacramento-area mall for engaging young people in conversations about faith.

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, commented, “In America, people should not have to get permission or pay a fee simply for sharing their faith in legally protected areas. In the past three years, we’ve seen an alarming uptick in the number of evangelists being criminally prosecuted or otherwise barred from engaging in the time-honored American tradition of publicly sharing their faith. We’re also very concerned about the increasing number of incidents where not even senior citizens like Ms. Moore are being respected in their exercise of constitutional freedoms.”

The new case is Moore v. Valley Plaza Mall LP, et al., Kern County Superior Court Case No. BCV 19-101312.