NEWS- Collins v. Lebo: Keep your talk outta my parking lot

UVA prof and environmental negotiator Rich Collins won an appeal of criminal trespassing charges, but he didn't fare as well in overturning private property law in Virginia. 

The Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear his civil suit against Shopper's World, where he was arrested for campaigning during his 2005 run for the House of Delegates.

The case pits two cherished Constitutional ideals– free speech and private property. After his arrest, the ACLU and Rutherford Institute came to Collins' legal aid. 

In the civil suit against Lebo Properties, which manages Shopper's World, where Whole Foods is located, Collins argued that his free speech rights were violated when he was handcuffed and hauled to jail for trying to exercise his Constitutional rights on private property that serves as a public forum.

Before a three-judge panel of the Virginia Supreme Court February 14, Lebo's attorney, Mike Derdeyn, contended that there was no such right under the U.S. or Virginia constitutions. The court declined to hear the case February 23.

"We're not greatly surprised, but disappointed," says Frazier Solsberry, who represented Collins in petitioning the state Supreme Court. "Our argument holds that political speech is appropriate in some circumstances."

He notes that New Jersey, California, and Colorado permit leafletting in shopping centers under their state constitutions, and he hoped that as the "home" of free speech, Virginia would join the minority of states that recognize privately owned shopping centers are today's version of the public square of our forefathers.

 "[Collins] was campaigning in Albemarle precincts," says Solsberry. "In Albemarle, there is no public forum except shopping centers. That knocks grassroots candidates out of state politics."

Chuck Lebo, who manages Shopper's World, suggests that public parks or an area near the post office could be set aside for political candidates.

"We're not against freedom of speech," says Lebo, "but if someone's harassing my customers who are trying to buy groceries, we have to put down our foot."

Collins was convicted of trespassing in Albemarle General District Court, but that was overturned on appeal last fall by Judge Paul Peatross in Albemarle Circuit Court. Although Collins escaped punishment, Lebo considers that case a victory "because the judge said he couldn't campaign here."

 Lebo is pleased the court battles are over after nearly two years, but some hurt feelings remain– as well as thousands of dollars in legal fees.

"I really think the Rutherford Institute owes me and the Albemarle police an apology," says Lebo. Rutherford founder John Whitehead penned an essay in the July 6, 2006, Hook ["Police state: Has common sense taken leave?"] that called the arrest "mean."

"They weren't there while we pleaded for an hour to get [Collins] to leave," says Lebo. "I consider it slander on my character."

But he says he doesn't intend to sue.

Rich Collins couldn't get the Virginia Supreme Court to hear his free speech case, but at least he won't have a criminal trespassing conviction on his permanent record.