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Simon Property Group, the owner of Santa Rosa Plaza, is expressing "regret" over an incident earlier this week where security guards at the downtown mall ordered a group of Andy Lopez activists to remove their white protest shirts as they ate in the food court following an afternoon demonstration just blocks away.

Among the group was Sujey and Rodrigo Lopez, the parents of the 13-year-old boy who was fatally shot in October by a sheriff's deputy who says he mistook the boy's airsoft BB-gun for a real AK-47 assault rifle.

Sujey had only her undergarments beneath her white T-shirt and was left deeply upset by the request, said Jonathan Melrod, a member of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. The activists were told they would have to leave the mall if they refused to take their shirts off, Melrod said.

After the Monday incident, Melrod, an attorney, fired off a letter to John Best, area mall manager for the Santa Rosa Plaza, and David Simon, president and CEO of Simon Property Group, claiming the group's free speech rights were violated. In his letter, Melrod cited a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, which he said affirms the California Constitution's extension of free speech rights at shopping centers.

Melrod demanded, among other things, that free speech activities be allowed in the mall and that the mall apologize to the Lopez family. The letter threatens a boycott on Feb. 28 and a protest at the mall planned for Feb. 23.

Melrod said Thursday that the California Constitution extends the country's "constitutional protection of free speech into the semi-public area that's privately owned."

Simon's response came Thursday afternoon, in a letter to Melrod from Mark Payne, senior associate general counsel for Santa Rosa Plaza.

In his letter, Payne states that the mall "is well aware of the Pruneyard decision and the holding in that case which permits individuals to engage in expressive activity at privately owned shopping centers, subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions."

Payne goes on to say that "We are deeply disappointed that the actions of the security guards did not comply with our policies and procedures and regret that this incident occurred."

After the incident, mall management met with the "third-party" security subcontractor to discuss the guards' handling of the incident and to reinforce proper procedures, Payne wrote.

Kimberly Hall, a local Simon spokeswoman, declined to answer questions and referred to Payne's letter when asked about the incident Monday.

Payne suggested in his letter that free speech is respected at the mall. He wrote that on Feb. 18 there was a community gathering at the mall food court that occurred without incident, intervention or interruption.

Payne ended his letter by extending condolences to Andy Lopez's parents over the "tragic loss of their son."

Melrod said Simon's response affirms the group's free speech rights.

"I feel that the strength of the Andy Lopez justice movement prevailed on this issue," he said. "We're happy that we received an apology for Sujey and Rodrigo."

Melrod said Andy Lopez activists still plan on conducting a demonstration on Sunday. He indicated they were no longer planning a boycott.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com