Are security officers at Santa Rosa Plaza taking the fall for the mall's corporate owners for the unfortunate confrontation with Andy Lopez activists concerning T-shirts they were wearing?

It sure looks that way. That's especially true for former Security Director Russell Aharonian who says that shortly after the T-shirt episode on Feb. 17, he was asked to clean out his desk.

As Aharonian told Staff Writer Martin Espinoza, he and his officers guards were only following the plaza's conduct policy when they confronted the activists in the food court and asked them to remove their T-shirts, turn them inside out or leave. Among those confronted were Lopez's parents.

There's no question that this whole episode — including the adoption of a dubious policy banning signs, banners and T-shirts on the day of a protest — has been handled poorly. Who really would regard a T-shirt that reads "RIP, Andy" and features a photo of the 13-year-old boy who was shot by a sheriff's deputy five months ago as a threat to the sanctity of the mall? Aharonian's termination, if it was a direct result of this confrontation, has only made this case more troubling.

In its public apology two weeks ago, attorneys for Simon Property Group, the owner of the mall, said the company was "deeply disappointed that security officers at Santa Rosa Plaza inappropriately addressed a group of visitors." But the mall had a policy and practice of cracking down on attire, one that was put in place around the time of the Occupy movement. The question is whether the security guards and Aharonian in particular handled the encounter in a way so different from previous ones and so egregious as to warrant discipline and possible termination.

In our view, the real problem was not the policing but the policy itself, one that not only trampled on individual rights of expression but appears to run contrary to established case law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled long ago that a privately owned shopping mall was the "functional equivalent" of a downtown business district. And although it later dialed back that definition somewhat, the high court and the California Supreme Court upheld the idea in a 1980 case involving students wanting to gather petition signatures at the Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell. The courts found that the reasonable exercise of speech — and the right to collect signatures — in privately owned shopping malls is protected.

The gray area remains over what is considered "reasonable." That aside, the rights of the Lopez family and others to pick their T-shirts would appear to have been upheld even further just 14 months ago when the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the Pruneyard decision but clarified that it applied only to "common areas" where shoppers are invited to congregate and relax. Reason would suggest that a food court would certainly fall in that category.

Since this episode, the mall has taken down its posted policy. But Simon would help its cause by clearly spelling out to the public if, when and where it plans to crack down on wardrobe choices. Shoppers would find it useful. Anyone applying for a job as a mall security officer probably would as well.