Petition gatherers are fighting back in California, picketing Safeway‘s corporate headquarters in Pleasanton, CA. They’re claiming that the grocery chain is disrupting their free-speech rights. According to a San Jose Mercury News story, a press release handed out by a dozen or so petition circulators claimed that “Safeway’s unconstitutional policies specifically target the rights of citizens to lawfully collect signatures to qualify ballot measures,” and that recently, “Safeway managers have been harassing, photographing and threatening signature gatherers with restraining orders, denying their right to participate in California’s direct democracy.”

The California petition gatherers are on pretty solid legal ground.  Why? California’s state’s constitution, which has strong freedom-of-speech protections that generally exceed those of the federal constitution’s 1st and 14th Amendments.  A 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. State of Alabama, which found that pamphleteers could not be ejected or arrested when petitioning on private property that is essentially a “company town,” as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 decision dealing directly with petition gathering in California, Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, clearly extends petition rights to smaller private venues, such as shopping centers, at least in California. As the majority in Pruneyard noted, California’s constitution protects “speech and petitioning, reasonably exercised, in shopping centers even when the shopping centers are privately owned.”

Welcome, in contrast, to petition gathering in Florida. In the Sunshine State, the barriers against signature gathering are considerably steeper.  In 2007, the grocery giant Publix helped to push a bill through the Republican-controlled Florida state legislature that gave corporate entities the right to remove unauthorized petition gatherers from their private property.  Previously, in a 2005 decision, Publix Super Markets, Inc. v. Tallahasseans for Practical Law Enforcement, et al., the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled that signature gatherers in Florida “are not entitled to the First Amendment or the Florida Constitution to solicit signatures…on Publix’s privately owned property without Publix’s permission,” and as such, do not have a “constitutional right to solicit at such properties over Publix’s objection.” Interestingly, the 2007 Florida law (Section 106.371(8), Florida Statutes) banning ballot initiative petition gathering on private property does not apply to petitions being solicited for candidates.  “This issue,” as the Florida Secretary of State’s Candidate Petition Handbook states, “has been addressed by the Florida courts and turns on whether the private property is a quasi-public or public forum (such as a mall) rather simply a private business.”

The attack on citizens initiative rights in Florida has gained considerable steam over the past decade, as Republican lawmakers–and former Governor Jeb Bush–saw ballot initiatives as a direct threat to their control over public policy in the state.  But more on that sordid story another time….