Do individuals have First Amendment rights on others’ private property?
Generally no. The Bill of Rights provides protection for individual liberty from actions by government officials. This is called the state-action doctrine. Private property is not government-owned. Restrictions on individuals’ free-speech rights on private property do not involve state action.
However, a few states have interpreted their own state constitutions to provide even greater free-speech protection than the federal Constitution offers. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have free-speech rights at privately owned shopping malls. Most state supreme courts that have examined the issue have disagreed. In April 2002, the Iowa Supreme Court refused to extend its definition of public property to include large, privately owned shopping malls.
Can what a customer wears in a shopping mall be restricted?
In most cases, yes. Most states consider shopping malls to be the private property of the mall owner. Just as with any piece of private property, owners can make rules regarding that property, including what is appropriate attire; think of “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case Hudgens v. National Labor Relations Board. This case involved a group of labor union members who were picketing inside a privately owned mall. The union members filed suit claiming, in part, that their First Amendment free-speech rights had been violated after they were asked to leave the premises or be arrested for criminal trespass. The court looked at past cases and found that the First Amendment does not prevent a property owner from restricting the exercise of free speech on private property, in this instance the shopping mall. So, for example, if a mall shopper were asked to cover a shirt that the mall owners found to be offensive, the shopper would have to comply or leave.
New Jersey and California have found their state constitutions to provide more freedoms than the U.S. Constitution — meaning that in these states constitutional rights to free speech can prevail over the private-property interests of mall owners. See Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980). However, most states that have addressed this issue have found in favor of property owners.