The Glendale city attorney who argued the case thought the ruling was nothing short of vindication. So did his opponent, Santa Claus.
The two were squared off over a consent decree that Glendale’s self-styled Santa, Robert George, who keeps his home decorated for the holidays all year, had signed in November, 1987. In it, George gave up, among other things, his right to have visitors come to his home, except “bona fide” friends and deliverymen. Later, on the advice of the American Civil Liberties Union, George reneged on the clause, which the city said was designed to keep sightseeing crowds under control.
On Monday, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals chided the city for what it viewed as an “Orwellian” attempt to abridge a citizen’s most fundamental rights--those of free speech and association.
But the court did not side with George entirely, noted Senior Assistant City Atty. Scott Howard.
Nothing in the Constitution, the judges ruled, precludes a city from limiting the number of “Styrofoam bells, baubles, artificial animals, statuaries, or any other temporary or permanent Christmas-type ornaments . . . lights or lighting” a resident can put up, or when.
Thus the Court of Appeals let stand George’s agreement not to put up any more decorations than he had on Oct. 1, 1987, and to turn the remaining ones on only during the Christmas season.
“If there were to be any gripes at all about the decision, or any feelings of disappointment, it is that the court allowed him to back out of an agreement,” Howard said.
Santa, on the other hand, seemed a touch more ebullient.
“I beat the city,” George said. “Santa Claus beat the city. They said I couldn’t do it, but I did.”
The court was clearly piqued at the city’s attempt to “ban members of the public from entering or remaining on appellant’s property” and to allow “no more than two visits a month by terminally ill children,” as the consent degree called for.
The city argued that both parties understood that those words referred to the large crowds of sightseers at George’s home.
“This is not what the order says, nor can the First Amendment rights be the subject of unwritten and, therefore, unenforceable understandings,” the court said.
Neither side, at this point, plans an appeal. But that doesn’t mean the case is closed.
George said he plans a victory party. He also intends to put back up the lights he took down after the city began enforcement against year-round Christmas at his rented home on Alameda Avenue.
Howard says he will be watching for illegal lights.