Andy Lopez activists to get 'free speech' table at Santa Rosa Plaza

Activists protesting the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez will have a "free speech" platform near the food court of the Santa Rosa Plaza, where just three weeks ago security guards ordered them to leave.

With the cooperation of mall owner Simon Property Group, the activists are scheduled to set up a table to distribute political literature, buttons and T-shirts related to the controversial Oct. 22 shooting death of the 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy.

The literature will include a "fact sheet" about the shooting and a petition calling for the prosecution of Sonoma County sheriff's deputy Erick Gelhaus. The 24-year law enforcement veteran told investigators he shot Lopez on Moorland Avenue, just outside city limits, because he mistook the boy's airsoft BB gun for an assault rifle.

Simon gave its consent Wednesday afternoon in a letter sent to Jonathan Melrod, the attorney for the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez.

"Mall management has confirmed that they are happy to cooperate and accommodate this request and have advised that they will provide a 6-8 foot skirted table to meet your needs," wrote Mark Payne, Simon's senior associate general counsel.

Melrod called Simon's concession "a great victory for free speech rights that provides a modicum of respect to the loss the Lopez family suffered."

The move on Simon's part represents a significant departure from its strict policy of not allowing protest banners, signs or shirts on the day of a scheduled protest, Melrod said.

Payne's letter Wednesday was a response to a letter Melrod sent Monday notifying Simon that activists were planning to set up the table on March 29 for an indefinite period.

Melrod said the table was aimed at exercising free speech rights spelled out in the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, which he said affirms the California Constitution's extension of First Amendment rights at semi-public areas such as shopping centers.

"Sometimes rights aren't given, they are taken," Melrod said this week.

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