BREAKING NEWS: Target Corp. sues grass-roots Canvass For A Cause to stop petition signing, especially those for gay marriage

SAN DIEGO – Attorneys for Target Corp. were denied a motion in Superior Court in San Diego this morning seeking a temporary restraining order against Canvass For A Cause to prevent the grass-roots activist group from gathering petition signatures in front of its stores in California.

Judge Jeffrey B. Barton declared that the right of free speech trumps over the business interests of Target, and refused the corporation’s request to temporarily remove the activist group from outside Target stores in California pending trial.

The judge set a trial date for March 25.

Court documents filed by the Minnesota-based Target Corp. show that its agents are particularly unhappy that the San Diego-based Canvass For A Cause (CFAC) volunteers are seeking petition signatures in support of gay marriage.

In one court document filed on behalf of Daniel Brown, who described his role as being an Executive Team Lead for Assets Protection for Target Corp., he declared that the CFAC volunteers at the Poway Target “typically come in pairs with clipboards, stand within 10 feet of the main exit door, for much of the day, and ask guests leaving the store to sign a pro-gay marriage petition or to make a donation using a credit card to an electronic credit card reader attached to a phone.”

Brown continued his complaint about the group.

“Canvass for a Cause solicitors typically start by asking our customers if they support gay marriage. If the answer is yes, they ask our customers to sign a petition and for a credit-card donation. If the answer is no, they challenge the customers on their beliefs. Whenever our customers say no, whether it is about making a donation, signing a petition, or about support for gay marriage, the solicitors become angry and aggressive, continuing to challenge our customers on their morals. I have seen them tell our customers not to vote if they are unhappy with the customers’ views.”

Brown said that when he warns to volunteers that Target has a No-Solicitation Policy, “they assert that they have a free speech right to engage in their behavior and have refused to leave Target’s premises.”

Tres Watson, executive director of CFAC and a San Diego resident, said he was peeved that Target was focusing on the gay marriage petitions in its complaint.

“Actions like this by an organization that has a history of funding groups opposed to LGBT equality like Target are unacceptable. The desire to protect our families should not be offensive to Target, or its patrons. Our families deserve the same dignity and respect as that of any parent who loves their children, and Target Corp. needs to understand that gay and lesbian folks have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else,” Watson told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News in an exclusive interview.

In various documents, attorneys for Target contend that CFAC’s activities disrupt business, interfere with customer traffic entering and exiting the stores, and ruin the shopping experience.

Brown alleged “many” CFAC volunteers followed customers to their cars in the parking lot and one guest was harassed to the point that she had to make a donation before she was permitted to drive away.

Watson dismissed Brown’s allegations as hyperbole.

“We approach about 120 people per person per day at each store,” Watson said. “We have two people there, usually between 11 am and 4 pm. We might engage 20 of those people in conversation. We are always respectful of people and their opinions. We are trying to win hearts and minds, so why would we want to offend someone or chase after them?”

Target document worries that company may be viewed as being for gay marriage

“Some guests have told us that they are offended by the controversial pro-gay marriage messaging of the solicitors, and that they assume Target promotes the same view. One solicitor said that he will do everything he can to ensure that his friends and family also do not shop at Target anymore. One guest informed us that they were going to return everything they have bought because they were offended by the group. Many mothers with children have complained about the sensitive nature of the solicitors’ messaging,” Brown said in the document.

The irony here is that Target, which is known for progressive company policies toward its LGBT employees, has nonetheless been in hot water with the LGBT community and its allies for making a sizable donation last year to an anti-gay Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign spearheaded nationwide protests and urged Target to revise its corporate-donations policy to be more inclusive, instead of overwhelmingly supporting conservative candidates and causes. Target recently announced that it had indeed changed its policy, but critics said the same corporate officers who made the campaign contributions last year will be signing off on the new donations.

David vs. Goliath situation?

CFAC’s Watson said he was notified by e-mail on Monday, March 7, of Target’s legal action filed by a major law firm, Morrison & Foerster, which has offices all over the world.

Watson told SDGLN that “We have a volunteer attorney who is going to represent us with literally no court experience but really passionate. This is a David vs. Goliath situation, and we are happy to take on this issue because it’s one worth defending.”

Although in court documents Target trumpeted its various successful legal defenses of its No-Solicitation Policy, Watson pointed out that Target does not banish all groups despite its rules.

“It’s important to note that they do not bar the Girl Scouts from canvassing, and all other groups that operate in front of Target were there even today working, so it’s clear that the content of our speech is what offends them, not the character,” Watson said, noting that on a recent day his volunteers also noticed petition signers representing veterans groups and city issues.

“Several times in the memo they talk about how we are working on a ‘controversial’ issue that offends people, and at one point they describe my transgendered staff as ‘a person who calls themselves “Ruth” rather than just her name Ruth,” he said.

Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church cult had the right to free speech to picket military funerals, scream out obscenities at mourners attending services and wave placards reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.”

In another document filed in court today, Target’s attorneys noted that customer complaints about CFAC were “averaging eight-to-ten at one store with as many as twenty” at another store by people who felt “harassed … intimidated, unsafe, or who were offended by Canvass for a Cause’s political messaging.”

Individual Target stores typically attract hundreds if not thousands of customers per day.

Watson said his group averages five to six complaints per week, so he is not sure where Target’s figures are coming from.

The corporation’s attorneys argued that “Target will suffer irreparable harm that pecuniary compensation would not remedy and it would be extremely difficult to ascertain the amount of compensation that would afford adequate relief.”

The trial scheduled for March 25 will look into this and other issues.

More court documents to read

[Proposed] Temporary Restraining Order

Declaration of Sarah Fercho in support of Target

Declaration of Diego Toledo in support of Target

Declaration of Dale K. Larson in support of Target

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