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On The Front Lines

Va. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Free Speech Case Involving Local Politician Arrested for Peacefully Distributing Leaflets in Parking Lot

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Supreme Court has refused to hear a case dealing with whether individuals have a right to free speech in shopping center parking lots that are open to the public or whether property rights trump free speech rights.

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute had asked the Supreme Court to hear the case of Charlottesville resident Rich Collins. Collins, a retired university professor and political hopeful, was arrested in 2005 for greeting passersby and passing out campaign literature at Shoppers World, a privately-owned shopping center in Charlottesville, Va. Despite the fact that several other states, including California and New Jersey, recognize a right to engage in political speech in privately-owned shopping centers that are the functional equivalent traditional public fora for expression, the Virginia Circuit Court refused to recognize this right.

"We are greatly disappointed at the Virginia Supreme Court's refusal to hear Rich Collins' case," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "However, we do not believe that this issue is going to go away. In fact, the debate over where to draw the line between free speech and property rights will only become more critical as areas once open to the public are overtaken by state and corporate interests and the traditional public forum for free speech disappears."

The case began in 2005 when Rich Collins announced his candidacy for Delegate representing the 57th District of Virginia in the House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly. Collins alleged that because he could not afford to purchase advertising time and space on television, radio or in newspapers, the success of his campaign depended upon his ability to conduct a "grass roots" campaign in which he could personally meet voters and speak to them about the issues.

Thus, on the morning of May 7, 2005, Rich Collins attempted to distribute campaign flyers and speak to passersby on a sidewalk within the Shoppers World Shopping Center, which is under the control of Lebo Commercial Properties, Inc. Although Collins was polite and nondisruptive, did not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic, did not interfere with the conduct of any of the business of Shoppers World or their lessees and was careful to ensure that no litter was caused by his leafleting, shopping center management demanded that Collins leave the premises, invoking a policy forbidding solicitations within the shopping center. When Collins refused, insisting that he had a right to engage in political expression, he was handcuffed, arrested for trespassing and forcibly taken from Shoppers World in a police car.

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, brought an action in Virginia Circuit Court, asserting that the guarantee to free speech and expression contained in the Virginia Constitution protected Collins' right to engage in political speech connected with an election at privately-owned shopping centers that are open and available to the public. Because shopping centers have largely replaced downtown business districts and public parks as places where candidates can meet voters, the lawsuit asserted that Collins had the right under the Virginia Constitution to engage in nondisruptive campaign activities at the shopping center. Collins was found not guilty of trespassing in a separate action.

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