From T-shirt to suit: (l-r) Stephen and Roger Downs.
Photo by: Chris Shields
Public to Me
March, Stephen Downs and his son Roger were stopped by Crossgates
Mall security guards for wearing shirts saying “Give Peace
a Chance” and “Peace on Earth,” purchased that day in the
mall. Stephen Downs was arrested for refusing to take his
off or leave the mall [“If the T-shirt Fits,” Newsfront, March
13, 2003]. Now, more than a year later, the New York Civil
Liberties Union has filed suit against Crossgates Mall for
violating Downs’ First Amendment rights. The Town of Guilderland,
its police department, the arresting officer, and Crossgates’
owner, the Pyramid Companies, were also named as defendants
in the suit.
In prior cases, free speech has not been protected in malls
because they are considered private property. But civil- liberties
advocates say that because Crossgates has a Guilderland police
station—a public space—in the mall, the constitutional rights
to free speech and equal protection should be guaranteed there.
To Mark Mishler, Downs’ attorney, Crossgates is a “place where
people gather and it is a place, therefore, where people .
. . express ideas about the world, and there isn’t any other
place like that in Guilderland certainly.” The mall is treated
as a public space by its patrons who flock to it not just
to buy things, but to socialize.
The mall’s management has in the past permitted civilians
and community groups to use its common areas to distribute
literature and to fund-raise, which civil liberties advocates
say is what opens the mall up to the charge that Downs’ right
to free speech was violated.
the mall had made no effort to be the arbiter of what is allowed
as far as free-speech activity, then we would have no objection
to it maintaining its private-property status,” said Melanie
Trimble, executive director NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter.
“However, it has stepped in and made a statement about what
will be acceptable and what will not be acceptable. Once they’ve
done that they are infringing on free expression.”
Mishler said he will formally serve Crossgates with the complaint
late this week. The Pyramid Companies declined comment on
a world where deeply held and often intolerant religious beliefs
frequently lead to violence and death, a local man was recently
put in a position to bridge the gap of understanding and to
Matt Cherry, 37, of Albany, recently was elected president
of the United Nations’ Committee on Freedom of Religion and
Belief, a collection of nongovernmental organizations working
to ensure freedom from persecution for religious beliefs throughout
the world. Cherry, who works as the executive director of
the Albany-based Institute for Humanist Studies, said the
committee regularly arranges discussions between members of
religious communities, human-rights groups, academia and government;
issues reports; and holds hearings on religious freedom. These
reports are drafted to help develop policy for various U.N.
missions throughout the world.
The North Korean government and Muslim nations throughout
the greater Middle East tend to be the most repressive, Cherry
said. In these countries, especially Muslim countries following
the strict interpretations of Islam code of life known as
Sharia law, blasphemy is a jailable offense, and atheists
and apostates, those who renounce their religion, can face
execution. Leaders of intolerant regimes in these nations
often use crimes against religion as a means for jailing and
executing business rivals or political dissidents.
you have to do is say someone said something bad about the
prophet Mohammed and off he goes,” Cherry said. “Not only
are these countries extremely intolerant of others, but they
tend to export their intolerance and religious extremism around
Cherry said he is the first humanist to be elected president
of the committee, which meets at the United Nations’ offices
in New York City, since its inception.
nonreligious doesn’t mean that you’re antireligion,” he said.
“Usually as a humanist I disagree with a Seventh Day Adventist,
but when it comes to freedom of expression we’re all on the