SAN DIEGO -- A judge ruled Thursday that a San Diego pro-gay marriage group can continue canvassing outside of Target stores in California, but the group's volunteers must stay 30 feet away from store entrances and canvass at just one entrance at a time.
The Minnesota-based retail giant had sought an injunction barring the activists from every outlet in the state, alleging they harass customers by cornering them near store entrances to discuss gay marriage, solicit donations and collect signatures on petitions.
Rights advocates have warned that the legal battle between Target and Canvass For A Cause could further damage the retailer's already strained relations with the gay and lesbian community.
Canvass For A Cause director Tres Watson called Thursday's ruling a win for not only his organization, but also for free speech.
"I think this is a victory for every American that cherishes our fundamental values," he said.
Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton said some Target stores may fall under California's law that considers shopping centers to be public forums. Also, canvassing over the last year occurred mainly without incident and Target failed to demonstrate that customers were being harassed, he said.
"Target has not met its burden to show that its blanket policy to ban all solicitors at all stores in California is proper," he wrote.
The corporation has said at least eight Target stores in the San Diego area have received more than a dozen complaints daily since canvassers started working the locations in October 2010. The activists have refused to leave when asked politely and shown the company's policy prohibiting "expressive activity" on its property, Target said.
During a court hearing last month in San Diego, Barton asked Target's Los Angeles-based attorney David McDowell why the company didn't present testimony from customers who the company said had complained.
McDowell said the testimony could have been obtained, but he didn't think it was necessary since the complaints weren't the central issue. The case was about Target's right to enforce its rules on its land, he said.
"The question is Target's property right and its right to exclude," McDowell said.
Target Corp. said in a statement Thursday that the legal action was "to provide a distraction-free shopping environment for our guests."
"Target's long-standing policy is that we do not permit solicitation or petitioning at our stores regardless of the cause or issue being represented," the company said.
Barton warned the San Diego group to be respectful and to not block the flow of traffic. The restriction to canvass at just one entrance at a time was to ensure that customer access wasn't impeded, he said in the ruling.
Watson said the constraints wouldn't affect the group's work because volunteers don't follow people into stores or block store entrances.
Target was seen as an ally of the gay and lesbian community before it made a $150,000 donation to a business group backing Minnesota Republican candidate Tom Emmer, an opponent of gay marriage who lost last year's governor's race to Democrat Mark Dayton.
The company later apologized for the hurt feelings and tried to repair its image by creating a committee to help scrutinize its decisions on donations.
Target also negotiated a deal with Lady Gaga to sell a special edition of her upcoming album in a partnership Gaga said was tied to their "reform" – supporting the gay community and making up for past mistakes. The singer cancelled the deal a few weeks ago.