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.
On Feb. 17, activists eating in the mall food court following a downtown protest related to Lopez's death were confronted by mall security guards. The guards, acting on the mall's policy of not allowing signs, banners or T-shirts on the day of a protest, ordered the activists to either remove their "RIP Andy" shirts, turn them inside-out or leave the mall.
Among the activists were Andy Lopez's parents, Sujey and Rodrigo Lopez.
After the Feb. 17 incident in the mall food court, Melrod and activists threatened Simon with a boycott for violation of their free speech rights. Simon promptly apologized for the incident in a letter written by Payne that essentially confirmed that such rights are bolstered by the Pruneyard decision.
Neither Payne nor Simon management in Santa Rosa responded to requests this week for an interview.
In his Wednesday letter to Melrod, Payne addressed activists' plans to set up an information table at the mall indefinitely.
"So that we can be aware of and properly support any planned activities at the Plaza, we would ask that your client provide Plaza management with notice of their intent to use the table the day before each planned use," Payne wrote.
Melrod said the placement of an information table inside the mall could open new avenues in the coalition's campaign to pressure local authorities to bring charges against Gelhaus. He said that canvassing efforts at the mall on Feb. 23 were met with positive reactions from shoppers.