PANAMA CITY, Fla. A shopping mall violated a political candidate's state free-speech rights when it banned him from soliciting signatures to get on the ballot, a state appeals court has ruled.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee affirmed, without a written opinion, a trial court's order last year reversing Kevin Wood's 2001 conviction for trespassing in 2000 at the Panama City Mall.
Wood was running for Bay County court clerk but was not elected. He is running for the same position again this year and said he would return to the mall to seek signatures.
"It's the most efficient place to do it," Wood said. "The responsibility and burden is on the mall to reasonably allow political activities."
A three-judge panel on Feb. 4 unanimously upheld the decision by Circuit Judge Dedee Costello, who wrote that the Florida Constitution "prohibits a private owner of a 'quasi-public' place from using state trespass laws to exclude peaceful political activity."
The right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" is one of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. Whether First Amendment protection for petition, assembly and other forms of free speech can be extended to private property such as a shopping mall has been debated in the courts.
"This ruling means we as Americans don't have to leave our constitutional right of free speech at the door of the mall," said Pat Faucheux, Wood's lawyer.
Mike Johnson, the mall's regional manager, would not comment on any policy changes that might result but said management would have to take the decision into account.