Friday, June 26, 2009

A Sign of the Times?

On Wednesday a federal judge declared Houston's 1993 sign ordinance unconstitutional. The ruling concluded a trial in which Houston Balloons & Promotions sued the city. The company was awarded damages of $927,841 with an additional $187,000 for expenses and attorneys fees.

After the verdict, Jim Purtee--the owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions-- said:
I’m a small-businessman, and it was a tough decision to go against the fourth-largest city in the country. I think it’s a victory against how many cities in this country treat their citizens and the way they enforce their laws.

The judge ruled that the ordinance was vague and arbitrarily enforced. Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel does not anticipate the ruling having any implications regarding the city's recent ban on "attention-getting devices". Purtee and other business owners plan to challenge that ban.

Purtee's victory is certainly encouraging. But given the pragmatic, out of context mentality that dominates our culture, it could be isolated. It is likely that a future judge will not see that such ordinances are, by their very nature, arbitrary.

The lawyer for Purtee told the Chronicle:
The city’s going to have to be very careful in how it enforces the new ordinance starting in January. If they enforce it literally and ban car lot streamers and banners along with inflatables, they’ll likely face an array of challengers. If they don’t, and they discriminate, they’ll be in the same boat as this case.

While inconsistent enforcement of the new ordinance would certainly strengthen the case against the ban, it is likely that a future judge will not see that such ordinances are, by their very nature, arbitrary.

The ban on "attention-getting devices"--and indeed, the city's entire sign ordinance--substitutes the judgment and decisions of bureaucrats and politicians for those of business owners. The city has justified banning inflatables by calling them distracting; restrictions on billboards and other signs are justified by calling them ugly. Distracting to whom? Ugly to whom? And by what standard?

Causing distractions does not violate the rights of anyone. Nor does erecting ugly signs. If causing a distraction or displaying something ugly is proper grounds for banning certain activities, there is no end to the activities that should be prohibited.

Is an inflatable gorilla more distracting than a van full of children? Is a billboard uglier than a fat chick in spandex?

The proper purpose of government is the protection of our rights, including property rights. It is not a proper purpose of government to dictate good taste. If it were, city council would be required to prohibit most of its actions.

City council should not be concerning itself with what kind of signs we erect outside of our business. They should not be concerned with what is ugly or pretty, distracting or informative. They should not be imposing their values--or those of their political cronies--on the citizenry. They should leave us be, and protect our right to pursue our own happiness as we choose, so long as we respect the mutual rights of others. Until council does so, they will remain a much bigger distraction than any giant gorilla. And far uglier too.

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