EATONTOWN, N.J. – A retired police officer was arrested and charged with trespassing this week for witnessing to patrons of a New Jersey mall.
David Wells is a former corporal with the Long Branch Police Department, and over the past year, he has spent time sharing his faith at the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown. Wells says that he likes to distribute materials from Ray Comfort’s Living Waters Publications to shoppers in hopes that it will cause them to ponder matters of eternity. This past week, he handed out Comfort’s trillion dollar bill tract while asking a “trillion dollar” question.
“I simply approached individuals and asked them if I could ask them a question. If they said no, I left them alone,” Wells explained. “If they said yes I simply asked, ‘Are you going to Heaven?’ How I responded was based on how they answered that question.”
Wells states that he has witnessed to mall patrons in the presence of mall security without issue in the past. However, this past Tuesday, things were different.
“The mall security came over and immediately told me to stop what I was doing and to leave the property,” he explained. “They indicated that the mall was private property and [that I couldn’t distribute tracts there].”
But Wells noted that the state courts had declared malls a quasi-public venue, and “with that understanding I went to the mall to talk to people about the Gospel.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1994 in the case of New Jersey Coalition Against War in the Middle East v. J.M.B. Realty Corporation that malls followed the “historical path of free speech,” in the vein of parks, squares and downtown business districts. It allowed citizens to leaflet both inside and outside malls, but did not endorse other forms of expression such as public speeches.
“We believe that this constitutional free speech right, thus limited, will perform the intended role of assuring that the free speech of New Jersey’s citizens can be heard, can be effective, and can reach at least as many people as it used to before the downtown business districts were transported to the malls,” the court wrote.
The justices also outlined that a complaint is not enough to force termination of the right to free expression. Wells stated that he was unaware of a complaint, but said that it might have been the instigator that eventually forced him out of the mall.
“[S]ome people will not like it, any more perhaps than they liked free speech at the downtown business districts. Dislike for free speech, however, has never been the determinant of its protection or its benefit. We live with it, we permit it, as we have for more than two hundred years,” the court stated. “It is free speech, it is constitutionally protected; it is part of this State, and so are these centers.”
However, when Wells asserted that he had a right to distribute tracts in the mall, security called the police. Police contended under threat of arrest that Wells must leave as the mall is privately owned.
“I was polite about it,” Wells said. “I told them I didn’t want to get arrested. I wasn’t trying to make a scene, but I also wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
When Wells continued to assert that his activities were not unlawful, he was put in handcuffs and transported to the Eatontown police station for processing. He was formally charged with trespassing and plead not guilty in court on Thursday.
“I want to emphasize that I was not making any public spectacle: no signs, no loudness, no offensive language. I was simply trying to talk to people,” he stated. “If we’ve gotten to the point in the U.S. that we cannot talk to other people civilly, we’re in trouble.”
Wells will face a trial on December 5th. He is currently seeking legal representation in the matter, and in the meantime, supporters have launched a petition to defend free speech at the Monmouth Mall.