Thursday, August 11, 2011

Safeway vs. Petition Signature-Gatherers

Those of you outside of California may not understand, but the sight of people out in public gathering signatures for one ballot initiative or another is a pretty regular feature of life here. And yes, sometimes it's annoying; sometimes avowed opponents of government like us just want to go to the market or the movies without being asked to debate the merits of another global warming law or another tax hike. But it appears that the Safeway supermarket chain may be getting itself in hot water by cracking down on this annoyance. The Contra Costa Times reports that Safeway has begun taking an "aggressive stance" against paid signature-gatherers, and in some cases has filed injunctions against those it considers the worst offenders.

Safeway headquarters.
According to Safeway spokespeople, it's become necessary to crack down on signature-gatherers who harass their customers, create fire hazards by blocking entrances, and fail to comply with the supermarket chain's policies. Spokeswoman Susan Houghton provided photos from a Palo Alto store, at which signature-gatherers had set up a table and canopy that partially blocked one of the entrances, and says that similar pictures have been taken at other locations. The signature-gatherers, of course, are crying foul, and gathered yesterday to protest outside Safeway's Pleasanton headquarters. They claim that the supermarket is interfering with their First Amendment rights: "Safeway's unconstitutional policies specifically target the rights of citizens to lawfully collect signatures to qualify ballot measures. Recently, Safeway managers have been harassing, photographing and threatening signature gatherers with restraining orders, denying their right to participate in California's direct democracy."

While we're fully in favor of freedom of expression, ultimately this would seem to be a question of property rights. If Safeway owns the store, they have the right to tell you to leave. Of course, courts in California don't have the best track record when it comes to respecting property rights, so we'll have to see how this plays out.


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