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Civil Liberties Advocates Support Legislation Protecting Free Speech At Shopping Malls

In response to the failure of Crossgates Mall to respect the free speech rights of its patrons, the NYCLU has placed an advertisement on a nearby billboard stating, “Welcome to the mall. You have the right to remain silent. Value free speech.”

On March 3, 2003, the Crossgates Mall, which is located in Albany and operated by Pyramid Management Group, violated the free speech rights of 61-year-old Stephen Downs when it had him arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the phrase, “Give Peace A Chance.”

To address the problem of the suppression of free speech at Crossgates and other shopping malls, the NYCLU is actively supporting legislation that would require malls such as Crossgates to permit free speech. The legislation is sponsored by New York State Assemblymembers Steven Engelbright and John McEneny.

Following the Downs arrest, the NYCLU wrote to Pyramid Management Group seeking an explanation of the incident and urging the mall to adopt a policy that respects diversity and free speech.

“As a matter of both public policy and common sense,” the letter notes, “individuals must be permitted to wear clothing that expresses their aesthetic sensibilities as well as their artistic or athletic affinities and even their ideological views.”

The Pyramid Management Group replied in defense of the mall’s actions, referring to the code of conduct that governs its properties and states, “We reserve the right to limit non-commercial expressive activity on the property including… free speech activities.”

Given the prominent role of malls in our society, policies of this kind could prove extremely harmful to the rights of all Americans. “When malls replace Main Street as a center of commercial and social activity,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU, “the censorship of expression has a devastating effect on the freedom of expression and the diversity that is at the heart of a free society.”

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