Free Speech in Shopping Malls: Pruneyard v. Robins

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Ruling that shopping malls are not "off limits" to free speech, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided on June 9, 1980, in Pruneyard v. Robins that states can require owners of private shopping centers to provide access to political activists distributing literature and otherwise exercising their freedom of expression.

Property Rights v. Free Speech Rights

The decision upheld a 1979 California Supreme Court ruling that determined that private property rights did not outweigh the right to engage in free speech activities as guaranteed by the California Constitution.

In 1975 private security guards stopped high school students and their teacher from distributing a petition at the Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell, just outside of San Jose.

The petitioners left the mall, but sued the shopping center owners. After they won in the state high court, the shopping center owners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the ruling violated their federal property rights.

The Modern Day Town Plaza

Justice William Rehnquist wrote the U.S. Supreme Court decision stating, "The shopping center by choice of its owner is not limited to the personal use of the [owners]. It is instead a business establishment that is open to the public to come and go as they please. The views expressed by members of the public in passing out pamphlets or seeking signatures for a petition this will not likely be identified with those of the owner."

The ruling solidified the idea that a shopping center, though privately owned, serves the role as the modern-day "town plaza."

The high court noted that shopping centers do have the right to establish certain "time, place and manner" restrictions to protect normal business operations. In the years following the Pruneyard decision, many shopping malls imposed burdensome restrictions – such as posting multi-million dollar bonds and placing severe limits on the numbers of petitioners – which were successfully challenged by the ACLU.

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