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Protests Protested at Strip Club
by Ron Davis
The highly disruptive activities of a religious group protesting the operation of a strip club at a California shopping center must stop. So ruled a California appellate court in a case testing whether free speech rights should prevail over property rights.
The shopping center, located in Pico Rivera, had leased space to the strip-club operator despite its location in a residential area and its proximity to a church some 1,000 feet away. Upon learning of the opening of the strip club, the church pastor organized a group of church members to protest the club’s existence.
Instead of peaceful demonstrations, however, the church members, joined by other local citizens, engaged in vandalism, intimidation of club patrons, and loud noisemaking. The admitted goal of the protests was to publicize the club’s violation of local laws prohibiting lap dancing and the entry of customers through a rear door.
Both the shopping center owner and the strip-club owner conceded that the protestors had a right to express their opposition to the strip-club’s activities. So they agreed to allow a limited number of protestors (starting with five) to “normal polite protest conduct.”
But a video camera later caught a large number of protestors yelling and shouting at shopping center patrons, blowing loud whistles and bullhorns, and marching within a restricted eight-foot boundary around the strip club. The noisemaking activities sometimes continued well past midnight. Moreover, some protestors carried signs aimed at club patrons, stating, “You are being videotaped. It can be used against you in a court of law.” The club owner also told of being struck by a protestor one day while exiting his car.
The shopping center itself is somewhat different from a large regional shopping mall and leases to less than a dozen tenants, and the club is similar to a stand-alone facility, which can legally ban free-speech activities on its property.
The courts agreed that, unlike in a regional shopping mall, the Pico Rivera shopping center does in many ways lease the strip club as a stand-alone store.
“Furthermore,” the court added, “although the strip club is the target of the protests, that fact alone does not resolve the issue where the protestors are less than peaceable…. Thus, speech could be restricted on the shopping center property, but given the fact that more than one store is in the shopping center, the protestors cannot be completely barred from the site. Unfortunately, the protestors abused the generous access they had been given. There is no free-speech right to yell on bullhorns in an admittedly residential area at 12:30 in the morning, to accost and harass patrons of the center, and to deface property.” (Slauson Partnership v. Ochoa, 2003 WL 22411496 [Cal.App. 2 Dist.])
Decision: October 2003
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