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From T-shirt to suit: (l-r) Stephen and Roger Downs. Photo by: Chris Shields

Looks Public to Me

Last 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.

“If 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 the lawsuit.

—Ashley Hahn

Aiming for Coexistence

In 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 foster broadmindedness.

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.

“All 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 the world.”

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.

“Being 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 same page.”

—Travis Durfee


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