Put aside sentiments on casino gambling for a moment: the lawsuits filed by Rumford attorney Seth Carey, who seeks to have his signature-gatherers allowed into shopping malls and supermarkets, sparks a battle between two basic rights: private property and free speech.

The owners of the malls and markets, like Hannaford Bros. and Wal-Mart, are entitled to allow, or disallow, whomever they wish from their property. It’s a right perhaps as old and quintessentially American as the country itself: the right to control your property.

On the other hand, petitioners are exercising free speech by asking “Are you a registered voter?” to every passerby. It would violate the First Amendment if, in public areas, these signature-gatherers were quashed from circulating their ideas, another old and quintessential American right.

Burden of proof lies with Carey. He argues, according to his suit, that our Hannafords, Wal-Marts, shopping malls, etc. are the new “traditional town squares” of the 21st-century, and therefore the property rights of its private owners are subjugated to the free speech rights of the community.

It’s a clever argument, but fatally flawed. For applying Carey’s thesis would irrevocably erode the rights of private property owners, of all stripes, against unwanted intrusion, while giving special-interest groups freedom to run roughshod over them with the bulletproof protection of the Bill of Rights.

We always welcome constitutional reviews. A lawyer for Wal-Mart, John McCarthy, has accurately stated the laws are dynamic. Only by testing its boundaries are we ensured our rights are preserved.

Yet there are light-years between traditional town squares, a hallmark of New England communities, and the local supermarket or shopping mall. An extension of Carey’s arguments could rationally make anywhere people regularly congregate a de facto public place, a dangerous slope with severe legal implications.

A public place, and providing places for the public, are not the same thing.

More important is that Carey’s contention would diminish private property rights in favor of speech, when the two should remain equally balanced. While speech cannot be silenced, it’s well within the purview of private property owners to decide, and control, what occurs on their property.

There is no shortage of “traditional” public places around Maine where petitions may circulate; breaking down the doors of private businesses is an erosion of rights, not an extension.

Now back to gaming: if Carey has more than 64,000 signatures, as claimed, why clamor for this lawsuit? Although his fears of invalidated signatures are warranted, his gatherers have eclipsed the statutory minimum of 55,000.

If Carey is concerned that more than one-sixth of signatories for his Oxford County casino are false, unreadable, invalid or otherwise unallowed, he should be more concerned with the performance of his signature-gatherers than finding new places for them to work.

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