PORTLAND, Ore. (FNS) -- Four major retailers are watching the appeal of a $2 million damage award work its way to the Oregon Supreme Court, in hopes of winning some protection against signature-gatherers.
That case, Lois Stranahan vs. Fred Meyer Stores, was brought by a woman who was arrested in 1989 for trespassing at a Fred Meyer store while she was gathering initiative signatures. The criminal charges were later dropped. She claimed false arrest, and won $125,000 in general damages and $2 million in punitive damages from a Multnomah County circuit court jury.
The verdict was affirmed by the state's Court of Appeals, but only by a bare 5-4 majority, and attorney Charles F. Hinkle is petitioning the Oregon Supreme Court to take another look at it.
Along with Fred Meyer Inc. here, the case is closely followed by Costco, Safeway and Waremart, all of which have been in court over similar issues.
Hinkle, widely known as Oregon's "Mr. Civil Rights" for his support of civil liberties, sees no conflict in his defense of his client's property rights.
"I believe strongly that people have the right to free speech, but that right doesn't extend to private property. There is no federal court precedent for it; the Supreme Court has squarely been against it," said Hinkle.
Emotions run high on both sides. The package of initiative, referendum and recall are widely known as the Oregon System; they have been in force since 1902. One petition gatherer recently described the initiative as "the only way we can get things on the ballot that the politicians are afraid to put there."
Retailers are reluctant to be associated with many of the petition causes. And they are concerned about propriety on their premises.
The retailers are bedeviled by a 1993 Oregon Supreme Court ruling that allowed petition gathering in the Lloyd Center, a large covered retail mall near central Portland. The court said that common areas in such regional shopping centers are analogous to town squares, and petitioners have public rights there. Unfortunately, it didn't set definitions, leaving it up to owners, petitioners and judges to hash out the level of access. That ruling was the court's only statement on petition gathering. The result has been confusion.
The Court of Appeals said criminal prosecution of nondisruptive petitioners is unconstitutional.
One regional mall, Clackamas Town Centers, was allowed to restrict petitioning to four designated areas.
Earlier this year, Fred Meyer Inc. got court orders prohibiting organized petitioners from one of its Portland stores. Klein Campaigns and Progressive Campaigns, two petitioning firms, have appealed. Some petitioners have ignored the court order. Warning signs have been reported defaced. But police won't get involved unless customers are interfered with or traffic impeded. The Multnomah County District Attorney, Michael Schrunk, explains, "When it's clearly criminal, we'll prosecute."