9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.-The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned restrictions on picketing imposed by a shopping mall management company in a ruling issued Monday that aligns with a recent state Supreme Court decision.

The 2-1 ruling states that union members can not be prohibited from carrying picket signs, standing on sidewalks or picketing during peak shopping times, like during the holiday season.

"Free speech protections were designed to protect critical speech," Judge Sidney Thomas wrote in the panel's majority opinion.

The decision aligns with an earlier ruling by the California Supreme Court that goes against a ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In December, the California Supreme Court ruled that formalized unions have the right under state law to conduct picketing activities, such as distributing leaflets and asking shoppers to boycott stores.

In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not protect freedom of speech in malls and other private property.

Monday's ruling covers specific activity - the use of picket signs and picketing during holiday seasons - that the state Supreme Court's ruling did not address.

"Hopefully now the malls will understand that they do have to accommodate criticism of the tenants and themselves," Sandra Benson, attorney for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, was quoted by The San Francisco Chronicle as saying.

According to court documents, the case started when protests by the Carpenters Union in Sacramento and Santa Cruz, Calif., involved nonunion contractors. Union members who distributed leaflets and picketed at the malls were arrested.

The union first complained to the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled in favor of the union but with restrictions. Those restrictions were struck down by Monday's ruling.

The court's ruling states that the operators of the shopping malls claimed restriction on picketing activity were for the purpose of safeguarding the commercial activity, protecting shoppers' safety and providing shoppers with a pleasant shopping experience.

But in the majority opinion, Thomas said the operator's procedures "expressed hostility toward messages critical of the mall or its tenants."

Dissenting, Judge Consuelo Callahan said the courts should give shopping centers greater freedom to manage their operations, and that the decision comes at the expense of state property rights.

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