Activists accuse Albuquerque malls of violating rights
Associated Press, 22. Dec. 98
ALBUQUERQUE Albuquerque’s three major shopping malls are being sued by a community activist organization that wants to hand out leaflets which criticize the malls’ treatment of young people.
The SouthWest Organizing Project, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit yesterday inU.S. District Court, alleging Coronado, Winrock and Cottonwood malls violated the organization’s free-speech rights.
The complaint alleges citizens should be allowed to distribute leaflets and speak to shoppers in the malls’ common areas because the malls are home to government services, including early voting polling stations in the recent elections, city bus stops, police substations and Motor Vehicle Division offices.
The lawsuit likens the common areas to the village squares of old.
"We’re not trying to change the law," said the plaintiffs’ attorney, John Boyd. "Our position is the malls can remain private and keep people out so long as they don’t engage in state action. … Once you open it up to the instrumentalities of government, you must open it to speech."
A related lawsuit filed in federal court yesterday by Albuquerque residents Maria Rodriguez and Fernando Abeyta alleges Albuquerque police and mall security officers at Coronado Center have illegally arrested, searched and photographed young people without reasonably suspecting them of crimes.
Keith Elston, ACLU executive director, says the lawsuits are an attempt to make sure rights will not lose their meaning as they become subject more and more to policies created by private "gatekeepers."
"Young people have every bit as much right to visit the shopping malls as adults. … They should not be held to a higher standard of conduct based on nothing more than their age," he said.
The SouthWest Organizing Project contacted Cottonwood earlier about handing out leaflets to shoppers, mall general manager Lea Willingham said. Cottonwood has signs at all entrances prohibiting such distributions, she said.
"We are private property and as such, we can legally control access on our property as long as we do it in a nondiscriminatory nature," she said.
Willingham disagreed with comparing a mall to a public place such as a village square.
"We allow the public in the mall, but it’s not public property like the steps of the court building," she said.
The organization also contacted Winrock some time ago, requesting permission to speak, said Pat Glennon, Winrock’s general manager. He mailed a standard package sent to all groups with requests to use the mall, and never heard back, he said.
"We have no policy against free speech; anyone can come in and speak any time they want, but we do have certain things we require of everybody," he said.
Coronado’s general manager, Randy Sanchez, would not comment until he reviewed the lawsuits.