Signature gatherers say Wal-Mart doesn’t like pot initiatives

A pair of signature gatherers who were ordered by a court to stay away from Wal-Mart stores are claiming that they were harassed by store managers who didn’t want them getting signatures for an effort to legalize marijuana.

Last month, the big box chain got a court order against the pair, saying they were harassing customers. But a third signature gatherer not affiliated with the pair said that he has also been harassed repeatedly by some Wal-Mart managers while getting signatures on a pair of pot legalization initiatives—though the majority have let him go about his business as  normal.

A Yuba County judge issued a temporary restraining order on Dec. 8 against Edward Jefferson and Cliff Hoffman, barring them from gathering voter registration forms or ballot signatures at California Wal-Mart stores. The company claims the men were harassing customers in order to get signatures.

“We have policies to allow community members to solicit or hand out literature at our stores,” said company spokeswoman Daphne Moore. “We ask that everyone follow our solicitation rules. They’re pretty simple.”

She added: “These individuals have a history of disregarding our solicitation rules.”

Both Hoffman and Jefferson say they had worked in front of Wal-Mart stores and elsewhere for years, on a variety of issues, mostly without incident — until they started gathering signatures for a marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by Oaksterdam University, the Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative. Then, both say, the harassment started.

Hoffman said that in November, a Wal-Mart manager in Marysville got aggressive with him, directly questioning why he was gathering signatures for a marijuana initiative.
Moore dismissed the accusation, saying “Our policies apply to everyone.”

However, another signature gatherer has also stepped forward. Peter Keyes said that he has been accosted by Wal-Mart managers at several different locations while gathering signatures for the Tax Cannabis initiative and another effort, called the California Cannabis Initiative.

One incident, Keyes said, came on Dec. 19 in Woodland, when a female manager told him he had to leave, even though he was complying with store policies. He said that she pointed at a sign he had at his table and said “We have a restraining order on people trying to legalize marijuana. We’ve been getting complaints, and we got a restraining order on that.”

Keyes said that he told her that he was not one of the people named in the injunction, then had a brief conversation with a police officer who told him he was in compliance.

But Keyes said that he’s been having problems since November, with incidents also occurring at Wal-Marts in Folsom and on Truxel Avenue in northern Sacramento. In some of these cases, he said, police have been called on him, even though he was following store policies. He said he was told by a Wal-Mart manager in Elk Grove on Nov. 11 that he was banned from the store, and given a written notice threatening him with legal action.

After the Jefferson and Hoffman case, he said, things got worse. Keyes said he has repeatedly been confused with Jefferson and Hoffman, or treated as though their case applied to anyone gathering signatures on a marijuana-related initiative.

“I was tickled that some of these store mangers think they can have a restraining order against a ballot measure or an abstract proposition,” Keyes said.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Michelle Bradford confirmed that the managers at the Truxel and Woodland stores did speak to Keyes in the days after the order was issued, but only to determine if he was Jefferson or Hoffman.

“Two of the stores did ask him to identify himself to determine if the order applied to him,” Bradford said. “After it was determined that order did not apply to him, he was allowed to stay and gather signatures.”

Keyes also said that he has repeatedly cited the Pruneyard decision during these encounters. This was a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case where a group of high school students in Campbell won the right to gather political signatures at the Pruneyard Shopping Center. This important case helped establish the concept of the outside shopping establishments being a “public place” subject to free speech protections. The California Constitution also contains specific protections for political speech in these public places, with the caveat that retailers may establish “reasonable rules.”

Unlike Jefferson and Hoffman, who are full-time professional signature gatherers, Keyes said he works part-time on different signature efforts—but is also a pot activist and a medical marijuana patient. He said that he hasn’t had nearly as many problems when he was gathering on other issues, or even when he didn’t have a sign identifying himself with marijuana initiatives.

When asked whether he believes Wal-Mart has specifically targeted people working on marijuana initiatives, Keyes said he couldn’t prove it. It is fairly common for big box store managers to make things difficult for signature gatherers, he said, though more rare for them to raise issues about particular causes.

Jefferson and Hoffman also say they were following these rules, such as confining their activities to a designated area set 35 feet from the front door, and that the accusations against them were cooked up by Wal-Mart managers. In the court hearing, Wal-Mart attorneys alleged that the pair intimidated and argued with customers, and sometimes followed people into the parking lot—charges they deny.

“I go to other places, the DMV, other stores,” Jefferson said. “Somehow this behavior doesn’t follow me to other stores.”

Jefferson said that he’s 61 years old and has arthritic ankles, meaning that by necessity he has to spend most of his long work days sitting down behind a folding table, not following people around. He said he does sometimes try to talk to people about their feelings in different issues, including the marijuana initiative, but said: “That is not a threat. It’s called free speech. It’s called having a conversation.”

Jefferson did acknowledge that he spent 45 days in jail in Yuba City three years ago after a complaint was filed against him when he was doing voter registration and then he couldn’t make bail.

Hoffman said he doesn’t follow people either—because it doesn’t work: “It’s called ‘guerilla petitioning’ and I hate it because it gives everybody a bad name,” he said.

Hoffman, 51, said he’s known Jefferson for four years. While they don’t technically work together—each is an independent contractor, like most petition gatherers—they sometimes work the same locations to share gas costs. He called Jefferson a “good friend,” even though they make an odd pair as a black Obama supporter and a white Republican. He added that when store managers do harass them, Jefferson usually gets the worst of it, something Hoffman attributes to his race.

Both men also raised issues about the Yuba County court hearing, saying only Wal-Mart employees were there to testify, and that the company did not produce any videotapes or other evidence against them. Jefferson alleged that a Wal-Mart manager walked through a store looking for a customer to file a complaint against them, which he said is a clear violation of the law. The company declined to comment on these allegations.

Each also said they’ve had problems in other places while gathering on the Cannabis initiative, including police driving by repeatedly and even asking them
if they were high. Hoffman said a manager of a FoodMaxx store in Oroville objected to a poster showing a pot leaf that he had next to his table, saying it was “a family store.”

“You sell alcohol here,” Hoffman said was his reply. “You sell pharmaceutical. You sell sex products here, jelly and condoms. Everybody can see them. Parents have to explain to their kids what they’re for.”

The signatures for the Cannabis campaign are being coordinated by Masterton & Wright in Marin. The firm’s Ken Masterton said that he hadn’t heard of marijuana initiative signature gatherers being picked on in particular—and that Wal-Mart could be looking at a serious lawsuit if they did selectively target people based on a particular point of view. However, he said it is pretty common for store managers to harass signature gatherers in general.

“Many managers are not aware of the constitution rights,” Masterton said. “They think their store is in Tiananmen Square and they can just kick people out.”
But he added, “I also take everything with a grain of salt that I hear from the field.”

Masterton said he’s also been hoping for years that California law would clarify the rights and restrictions for his business. The Pruneyard case, he said, concerned a multi-store shopping mall. Some big box retailers, he said, have tried to argue that the case does not apply to them.

A few difficulties aside, the “Tax Cannabis” signature drive appears to be one of the more successful efforts in recent California history. Campaign spokesman Greg Grimala said they’re waiting until early next year to hand in signatures so they’ll get on the November ballot, when there is likely to be a bigger turnout than in the primaries.

But the measure appears to be a prohibitive favorite to qualify. The campaign passed 650,000 signatures in about two months for just over a million dollars, and needs to qualify only two-thirds of these to get on the ballot. Masterton said he’s seen campaigns that have gone faster but at huge cost, and campaigns that passed cheaply but took a long time. The pot initiative, he said, got a tremendous response in urban areas, particularly the Bay Area.

This wasn’t to say they also didn’t have success in more rural areas, like the ones where Jefferson and Hoffman ran into problems. Though Masterton said he did try to get gatherers to present the message in a different way at times.

“We said ‘Don’t you want pot smokers to pay a tax?’”

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