Thursday, December 16, 2004

MH - Target in the Bulls-Eye

Some additional thoughts on Target’s decision to ban Salvation Army bell ringers from the front of their stores. You already know about this story. I wrote on it last week, from the perspective of whether or not Catholics should give to the SA. Now I’m back, to address it from the point of view of Target.

It wasn’t a very smart move from a public relations standpoint. We won’t know until after Christmas whether or not it hurt them financially, and even if there’s a drop in sales we can’t know for sure that there was a cause/effect relationship, but considering the amount of criticism that they’ve gotten, you can’t think it was a very bright thing to do. You have to ask yourself if you’d want the people responsible for making that call to be in charge of your company. At least we’ll find out if there’s really no such thing as bad publicity.

Apparently Target has a policy against allowing solicitations in front of their stores. For years they’ve made an exception for the Salvation Army, and now they’ve decided not to. Many reasons for this decision have been bandied about, from union regulations (continuing to allow the SA to solicit would open the door to union solicitations) to the fear that other, more divisive groups would petition to be allowed, to the idea that Target is anti-religious, to the simple thought that Target wants to keep their customers from being harassed as they enter the store.

I don’t pretend to know what the answer is, although I’ll offer some speculation at the conclusion of this piece. But first some visual observations:

Drive through downtown Minneapolis during the month, and you’ll see Salvation Army bell ringers on many street corners. Sure, you might see an occasional pamphleteer somewhere along the line, but you can get around them easily enough. And mostly what you see in December is the bell ringer.

Of course, downtown corners are still public places. But aside from the noon hour, not very many people go shopping downtown, at least in Minneapolis. Downtown has been replaced by the suburban mall, and this is the crux of my argument.

Shopping malls have become the modern public square, the secular house of worship, the place where people go to hang out. Pages and pages have been written about this as a sociological phenomenon, so I’m not going to argue the point; let’s accept this as a given. If so, one could make a compelling argument that the parking lot, indeed the entire area around the store up to the entrance, does not really belong to Target. Oh, it belongs to them legally. They pay property tax on it, they’re responsible for the maintenance, they plow the lot and shovel the walk during the winter. But figuratively, this area belongs to the public. It’s an open space, a landmark, a meeting space, a short-cut on the way to other places.

Put simply, the public has a vested interest in areas like this, an interest that comes into conflict with the legal rights of the landowner. I’m not necessarily carrying this argument to a legal conclusion, merely a moral one. Target may be able to do whatever they want with access to their store, but does that mean they should? Or does the public have rights as well, even when it comes to private property?

Again, I’m no lawyer (I don’t even play one on TV), but FWIW here are my two cents: If Target is afraid that other groups will want to solicit in front of their stores, then the answer is – let them! Let ‘em all come if they want. The more the merrier.

Of course, you can have some regulation of this mass solicitation: for example, don’t allow them to actually overtly solicit. Let them stand there with their kettle or their pamphlets or whatever else they might have, but tell them they can’t approach the public unless the public approaches them first. Last time I looked the Salvation Army didn’t really “solicit” anyway – they just kind of stand there and ring their bell, maybe wish you a Merry Christmas, but they don’t usually ask you straight out for money. Let everyone else play under these rules. You can have your informational flyer, but you can’t give it to anyone unless they ask for it first. I would hope that groups could adhere to this mild restraint of freedom of speech – after all, it’s better than not being allowed there in the first place. (And it might not hurt them to be less aggressive – it’s always a bad idea to drive away potential customers. Although someone ought to tell this to the people who operate mall kiosks.) For strip malls, let these groups gather on the sidewalk at a reasonable distance from the store’s entrance. For enclosed malls, the spot would be outside the mall entrances.

My wife asked about abortion protesters, as they’re often restricted in their activities outside abortion mills. This is true, and such restrictions are just as ridiculous as Target’s policy. A consistent application of the policy would give them a lot more freedom than they have in many places.

So who’s afraid of the Salvation Army, besides Target? Come one, come all, I say! Besides, I have an idea that there’d be less traffic outside the store entrance than you might think. Here’s why:

Have you been to your neighborhood grocery store lately? I have. Every week, in fact. And what to my wondering eyes should appear in front of that store each week but a Salvation Army bell ringer. The first question I asked was this: why isn’t there anyone else in front of the store? After all, I assumed if you allowed the SA, you’d be swamped with groups demanding your money, yet, the only person outside the store was a lone bell ringer.

Where are all these other groups? You’d think they’d all be camped out in front of a grocery store – regardless of the effect of superstores, a grocery store is still a pretty high traffic area – people gotta eat, you know.

So if you buy into this “allow one, allow them all” idea, then there are two possible answers: one, nobody else is asking, and two, the grocery store makes an exception to allow the SA.

And that begs this question: if a grocery store can do it, why can’t Target?

My wife, who hasn’t quite bought into my concept of public/private space, said this was the most compelling argument on the issue she’d seen.

We’re left with one final thought – is Target (and all other corporations with similar policies) discriminating against religious organizations? Think about it. There is, after all, no mention anywhere in a Target store of Christmas. (Don’t get me started on that again!) You can only judge groups, as well as individuals, based on their public actions, and while the last thing I want to do is accuse Target of being anti-religious, what other explanation can there be? If there is one, I’d be happy to hear about it, but it had better hold more water than the other arguments I’ve seen, or at least be more consistent.

As for the Salvation Army (for you’ll recall this is where the whole discussion started), it certainly doesn’t appear that Target’s decision was made because of the SA’s position on abortion and birth control. It appears to be a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. But if this whole sordid affair leads to an examination of the SA’s position, and a possible change in their stance, then it will be another example of God working in mysterious ways.

Mind you, this won’t necessarily prevent me from shopping at Target, unless I find out something conclusive on the issue. But it does bring into focus the larger question of the public gathering space. Target may own the parking lot, but it belongs to the public.

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