Florida's largest grocery chain lobbied hard for a new law that gives businesses the right to boot from their property unwanted signature gatherers hawking ballot proposals.
It didn't take long to use it.
The state had no clear policy on the issue, and Florida's courts had delivered mixed messages about whether shopping malls and parking lots should be considered public places open for political purposes.
While Publix wanted the right to prohibit all ballot groups from gathering signatures on their property, they particularly dislike a proposal being pushed by a group called Hometown Democracy that would require all land-use changes to be put to a local vote. Hometown Democracy wants it added to the state Constitution.
The new anti-petition law had only been on the books a week on July 8, when a 68-year-old South Florida gadfly was handcuffed and arrested for breaking it. She spent two days in jail.
Joyce Tarnow was gathering signatures for Hometown Democracy at a Pompano Beach Publix parking lot when she was arrested and charged with trespassing. It was her first arrest.
Tarnow is a veteran of political protests, a frequent contributor to newspaper editorial pages and a bit of a free spirit. She also runs her own anti-sprawl organization called Floridians for a Sustainable Population.
The arrest report details how she was gathering signatures at the Publix on 531 East McNab Road in Pompano Beach and how Publix Manager Andy Greenberg told her she was violating a new law. He asked her to leave. She refused.
Even before getting the new law passed, Publix appeared to be on solid legal ground to stop petition-gathering. Publix won a case similar to Tarnow's in Leon County Circuit Court, when a judge ruled that citizen rights to speech and petition don't trump Publix's private property rights. The new law solidifies that view, but the Florida ACLU's legal director, Randall Marshall, thinks the new law, and the old theories behind it, can still be challenged. He just doesn't want to use the Tarnow case.
Several years ago in Bay County, a gadfly named Kevin Wood, was gathering signatures to run for public office at the Panama City Mall when he was arrested for trespassing. A Bay County circuit judge ruled that a shopping mall is a "quasi-public" place, where petition signatures can be collected. Marshall wants to use that judge's opinion to go after the new law.
"There is a legal theory that would support the right to be petition-gathering in an enclosed mall, and perhaps strip mall," Marshall said. "But only after those cases got extended would it be advisable to take on a stand-alone store."
In other words, Tarnow's trespass at Publix is harder to fight.
After her arrest, Tarnow pleaded no contest, which means she officially declared that she wasn't challenging the charge against her. Lawyers have since advised her that's not the way you build a case of wrongful arrest.
But Tarnow is undaunted. She says places that invite the public to gather should also be open to the "exchange of ideas." So she plans to continue, even if it means getting arrested again.