Sunday, May 15, 2005

Candidate Rich Collins Arrested

With all the hoo-haw about the strange timing of arrest warrants and citations issued for Republican General Assembly candidate Steve Chapman in Prince William County (see Bacon's Rebellion for the latest discussion) and accusations against Republican challenger Chris Oprison in Loudoun County, the arrest of Democratic candidate Rich Collins in Charlottesville might raise some eyebrows, too.

It shouldn't. Collins' arrest lacks any of the earmarks of politically-motivated prosecution that are present in the Chapman case.

For those of you who arrived at the game without a scorecard, here's what happened to Professor Collins, as reported by the Daily Progress (via George Loper):

"One of the three city Democrats running in the 57th House of Delegates District June 14 primary reported Tuesday that he was detained last weekend while campaigning on parking and sidewalk areas of the Shoppers World shopping center on U.S. 29.

Rich Collins, a professor in the University of Virginia's architecture school, said he was arrested while campaigning Saturday. Collins said Charles T. Lebo, president of Lebo Commercial Properties, demanded that he stop campaigning at the shopping center.

Collins said he agreed to leave provided that Lebo would affirm that the shopping center was off-limits to all candidates for office, not just Collins. When Lebo declined to make such a statement, Collins said he stated, 'Then you'll have to arrest me. I believe that this is a violation of my First Amendment rights."

After Lebo pressed a trespassing charge against him with a county magistrate, the candidate was given a court date at 9 a.m. Friday in Albemarle County General District Court.

Lebo could not be reached for comment on Tuesday." (The Daily Progress, May 11, 2005)

In complaining about his treatment on WINA radio, Collins said (again via George Loper, who took the time and effort to transcribe the remarks):
I am trying to find some public spaces where candidates can meet people who are likely to be voters, are likely to be concerned about growth and the rising spike in our tax assessments. That is what I was trying to do. In many other states, these are declared public spaces not private property. This is a key constitutional issue. There are lots of laws that for a time are considered to be perfectly appropriate. Circumstances change. The rules of property change. What concerns me about Mr. Lebo's response was that he seemed to think that private property rights are absolute against all other rights including freedom of speech, when the democratic process is concerned with balancing these rights in appropriate settings."
"In many other states, these are declared public spaces not private property." What a chilling, frightening concept. Collins seems to be saying here that the government can, at will, through legislation or executive fiat, decide that your home or business is no longer simply your own "private property" (those are not meant to be "scare" quotes) but it is a "public space" upon which anyone can trespass at will, engaging in "speech" or "expression" with which you may disagree.

Writing in a different context, British political scientist Nigel Ashford, now with the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, notes that Britain and the United States both face the same problem. "The distinction between private and state (usually expressed as 'public') is extremely important in a free society. Unfortunately the definition of the private has become narrowed to include only the person's home, and sometimes not even that. The distinction between private and public should be ownership, not who goes there. 'Public' should mean government owned, not open to the public, as in a bar or club." Ashford, who is co-editor of the excellent reference volume, A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought, concludes: "Those who control the power of the state will use it for their own purposes and preferences."

One of Collins' opponents in the June 14 primary, Kim Tingley, recognizes this distinction and therefore has a much more sensible position than his opponent, which is also posted at For a Democrat, Tingley seems unusually respectful of small business owners:
As a small businessman, my imagination runs to a different scenario. I imagine an anti-abortion protester with particularly hideous graphics quietly protesting in front of my store on the day after Thanksgiving. I fear that all of the traffic will detour away from my store on the biggest shopping day of the year due to the actions of this protester. How would you craft a way of prohibiting political discourse that could adversely affect the businesses while allowing other forms of first amendment expression?

On of the expressions that is frequently used in the General Assembly is the need for a "bright line" to define some limit. Today we have such a bright line. Either it is public property or it is not. The challenge in any legislation that would require reasonable First Amendment activities at shopping centers and malls is to define an unambiguous limitation that protects both the rights of the person exercising free speech while also protecting the rights of that small business person. It is, after all, this small business person through her or his rent who is paying to operate and maintain the space.
What's really scary is the reaction of Kay Peaslee, a Collins supporter, who sees no distinction at all between public and private property:
It's about time someone publicized and protested the prohibitions enforced in shopping malls by their owners. The malls, despite what anyone says to the contrary, ARE INDEED public areas and to close them to any but commercial interests violates the whole notion of the First Amendment and the right of assembly.
Let's get something straight: The First Amendment protects us against the government, not private individuals or other private entities. We have no First Amendment claim to use property belonging to another in order to advance our own views or interests.

A group of Baptists can't walk into a Presbyterian church and hold worship services against the Presbyterian church owner's wishes. The First Amendment clause that protects "free exercise of" religion does not permit that.

The people who edit The Hook (a Charlottesville weekly) can't take over the printing presses of The Daily Progress, without the permission of Media General, to print their newspaper. The First Amendment clause that protects "freedom of the press" does not permit that.

Those people in Charlottesville who are circulating a petition to complain about how the School Board is performing do not have the right to forge other citizens' signatures on their petition. The First Amendment right to "petition the government for redress of grievances" does not permit that.

Neither the Virginia General Assembly nor the U.S. Congress can pass laws to permit those actions I've given as examples.

There's a great exchange of dialogue in the movie Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart as a Virginia farmer whose pacifist principles do not permit him to take sides in the War Between the States. (This movie belongs on every libertarian film-lover's shelf.) Stewart's character, Charlie Anderson, maintains his principles despite tremendous pressure from his community and from the Confederate Army. As he says to one army officer, "Now let me tell you something Johnson, before you get on my wrong side. My corn I take seriously, because it's mine. And my potatoes and tomatoes and my fence I take note of because they're mine. But this war is not mine and I don't take note of it. "

One day, some soldiers come to his farm and insist on taking his horses. They say they have been ordered to "commandeer this property".

One of Stewart's sons asks, "Pa, what does 'commandeer' mean?"

Stewart snarls back, "It means stealing."

I paraphrase from memory, but that's the gist of the scene. And that, essentially, is what trespass is: It is stealing someone's property, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for a good cause, perhaps with right intention. But it's stealing nonetheless.

Thomas Jefferson said, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."

Using the coercive power of the state to require property owners to make their property available to anyone -- those with whom they disagree or even those with whom they agree -- for purposes of political or religious expression is the equivalent of reaching into their pockets and taking their money to pay for that speech or expression.

It should be my choice whether to make a contribution to Rich Collins' campaign treasury; it should be my choice whether to put a pro-Collins sign in my yard or sticker on my bumper; it should be my choice whether Mr. Collins can use my home or my business to advance his political views and career. That choice -- those choices -- do not belong to the state, the city, or to Rich Collins.


Tim said...

Collins is clearly in the wrong, and this incident should give pause to any libertarians who intend to cast a ballot for him in protest. However, it is true that several Charlottesville business owners are using their establishments to promote David Toscano for House of Delegates.

As Collins is learning, one bucks the party machine at one's peril.

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