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Inflatable gorillas win one in court

How often do you get to write a headline like that?

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore ruled that a 1993 city ordinance restricting the use of attention-getting devices, such as the giant balloons atop businesses, violated the due process and equal protection rights of Houston Balloons & Promotions. The judge awarded the company, owned by Jim Purtee and his wife, $927,841 plus an additional $187,000 in expenses and attorneys fees.

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After a two-day trial earlier this month, Gilmore ruled the Houston sign ordinance section about attention-getting devices such as banners, pennants, streamers, strobes, spotlights, whirligigs and inflatable objects violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

She ruled that there was no rational relationship between the regulation that banned balloons with nongeneric messages, like logos, and the city’s stated goals of traffic safety and visual aesthetics, especially because balloons with generic messages like “Sale” were allowed.

The judge found that the city violated the due process clause because the regulations were vague and the city enforced them arbitrarily and inconsistently.

Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel said the city will take a close look at the judge’s decision to see if it should appeal the case.

Michel said he does not think this ruling has implications for the new ordinance that bans the balloons.

My advice would be to drop this case and pay the man, and to give a lot of thought as to the implications for the new ordinance, which Purtee says will be challenged in court. I’ve said before that on balance I think the new ordinance is a good thing, but I’m sufficiently ambivalent about it to feel that this development changes things. The risk of losing in court is now a lot higher, and unlike with billboards, I don’t think this is a big enough issue to take that risk. It won’t bother me if the city decides to cut its losses and not enforce the new ordinance.

As for Mr. Purtee, what else can one say but this?

Go ahead and crack open that cold one, dude. You’ve earned it.

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