When the Crossgates Mall tangled with freedom of speech, it got more than it bargained for.

The mall ordered Stephen Downs, 60, a local lawyer, to take off a T-shirt bearing the slogans “Peace on Earth,” and “Give Peace a Chance” or leave the mall, near Albany, N.Y., Mar. 3. When he refused, they called in the police and had him arrested for trespassing. Downs’ son Roger, 31, who was wearing a T-shirt reading “No War With Iraq,” and “Let Inspections Work,” agreed to remove his shirt. He was not arrested.

On March 5, 150 people wearing T-shirts with peace slogans marched through the mall in a protest organized by a local group, Women Against War.

The mall decided that night to drop the trespassing charge. A spokesperson told the World the management had “reevaluated the situation.”

On Mar. 9, 200 people wearing pro-peace slogans packed the mall’s food court, calling on the mall to halt its selective attack on anti-war messages.

“When I grab a bite to eat and I’m wearing a T-shirt that expresses my opinion, I want the same freedom for people who wear any T-shirt,” Erin O’Brien, of Women Against War, told the World. “We’re being targeted for one particular view. This is blatant discrimination.” O’Brien said she has frequently seen people at the mall wearing T-shirts bearing “misogynist, lewd, or violent language” without any interference from security guards.

Four days after Downs’ arrest, Robert Williams, the security guard who signed the trespassing complaint, was fired. Women Against War is asking the mall to either reinstate Williams or agree to arbitration. “We will not tolerate the assault on freedom of speech and Robert Williams, who is clearly being scapegoated and used as a sacrificial lamb,” O’Brien said.

In addition, the protesters want the mall to issue a public apology to “everyone who has been made to fear going to the mall wearing a T-shirt,” she said.

Some protesters wore T-shirts reading “Peace on Earth” on the front and “Please Don’t Arrest Me” on the back. Others read “Reinstate Robert Williams” and “Free Speech in Corporate Malls.”

Downs’ arrest has triggered widespread shock and disbelief, O’Brien commented. She believes the mall incident is causing people to wake up and realize their freedoms cannot be taken for granted.

Downs told The New York Times he had never attended an anti-war demonstration. “I’m completely an accidental symbol,” he said. “My thing is that everyone has the right to speak out about it.” Downs emphasized that he and his son did not pass out fliers or approach people. Roger Downs said they had spoken only to two people who approached them to compliment them on their shirts. “In this time when your voice seems to mean very little, this is a nice, quiet, passive way of expressing yourself,” he said.

Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the World the chapter will push legislation to require mall open spaces to be declared public property where free speech laws apply. Such bills have been introduced in the State Legislature annually and have gone nowhere, but now they may get more attention, she said. The current versions are Assembly bill A-4163 and Senate bill S-1743.

In many communities the mall is the only place where people can gather, Trimble said. “We have to accept today’s reality that malls have become Main Street.”

Women Against War is initiating a letter-writing campaign aimed at the mall and Pyramid Mall Management, which owns Crossgates and a number of other malls in upstate New York and New England, to protest their anti-civil-liberties policies. Information is available at www.womenagainstwar.org.

“Who does Crossgates Mall think they are? The fashion police,” protester Yunus Fiske told the local paper. “I saw a mannequin wearing a shirt with a peace sign. Are they going to throw the mannequin out?”

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.