A sweet victory for garlic fest gurus

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Times Staff Writer

As birthdays go, Bob Poelker’s 49th stank.

He and three Hollister biker buddies from the Top Hatters Motorcycle Club vroomed into the Gilroy Garlic Festival on that July 30 eight years ago, hoping to sample the fare. But two of the city’s finest turned their noses up at the men’s attire and gave them the bum’s rush out of the pungent party.

Poelker and his mates had purportedly run afoul of an unwritten dress code for the annual gathering that attracts more than 100,000. They were wearing denim and leather vests festooned with the club’s winged skull and top hat logo.

A few years earlier, the garlic fest gurus had decided to prohibit “gang colors or other demonstrative insignia” to deter undesirables from marring the family-oriented event.


The bikers sued the city and festival organizers, alleging their 1st Amendment rights had been abridged by Gilroy police who insisted they remove the offending garments or get lost.

The U.S. District Court for Northern California passed on the constitutional question, finding that city officials couldn’t be held accountable for a dress code at what was a privately managed event. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district ruling.

The bikers appealed.

To give the matter its due attention, 11 judges of the esteemed appeals court gathered in Pasadena to hear arguments on the purportedly trampled rights and dignity of the bikers and on the city’s claimed innocence in the matter.

By the slimmest of margins, the judges ruled 6 to 5 Wednesday to uphold the district court decision.