The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that supermarkets cannot shush away signature collectors from their entrances, because they are public spaces where state constitutional rights apply.
The ruling comes in the case of Steven Glovsky, who was told by the manager of the Westwood Roche Bros. in 2012 that he could not collect signatures there for his run for the governor's council.
The state's highest court had earlier ruled that candidates could collect signatures in the common areas of malls. Roche Bros. argued its front entrance was not the same, because, unlike in mall common areas, the public was not invited to congregate there, but just to pass through on the way to shopping.
But the court disagreed. In today's ruling, it said supermarkets have grown large enough to become the functional equivalent of a downtown shopping street - what with their bakeries, florists, eating areas and banks - that the areas in front of them have become the same as a public street, at least for the purposes of signature collecting. In the case of the Westwood Roche Bros., the court said:
Because the property allegedly contains the only supermarket in Westwood, as well as these other amenities, it reasonably can be inferred that the property draws a significant portion of the town's voters. In some communities, an individual might solicit signatures from members of the public as they traverse the public way connecting the various shops that offer such amenities; to deprive Glovsky of similar access to the public where the assorted products have been consolidated under a single roof could "substantially impair the fundamental rights protected by [the free-election article of the state constitution].
But while the court ruled against the supermarket chain on the basic question, it dismissed Glovsky's claim that the store manager had used "threats, intimidation or coercion" to shoo him away. The manager did not threaten him physically or mention potential arrest, and as a store manager, he was dressed as a civilian, not the security guard whom the court had ruled had used such tactics in an earlier, unrelated case.
Justice Robert Cordy dissented from the ruling, saying it represents too much of an infringement on "the rights of countless commercial property owners across the Commonwealth" and that he doesn't buy the argument that freestanding supermarkets have essentially become the equivalent of the downtowns of yore or the malls of today:
By failing to recognize the enormous differences between large shopping complexes that duplicate traditional downtown functions and free-standing stores selling multiple products, the court completely undoes the intended balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of those whom they invite to use their property, and creates serious consequences for property owners who miscalculate their obligations despite their best intentions.
He said it will prove impossible for people to collect signatures "unobtrusively," as the majority held, when they are planted right in front of a store's only entrance and exit.