Friday, April 13, 2012
The giant purple octopus mural over the Inland Octopus toy store on Main Street is as polarizing today as it was in 2010 when it was painted. Some folks love it, some hate it.
But the artistic merits of the mural have absolutely nothing to do with the lingering legal matter over whether the mural violated the city's sign code and whether the city's order to remove the sign is an infringement of store owner Bob Catsiff's free speech rights.
Thursday the state Court of Appeals made a very clear ruling that would seem to settle those questions.
"We reject Mr. Catsiff's federal and state free speech contentions, deny his attorney fee request, and affirm" Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht's decision. In addition, the three-member panel of judges concluded "the city's sign size and placement restrictions were reasonable and based on legitimate government interests."
The panel has gotten to the heart of the legal dispute and came to what we believe is the proper conclusion.
The mural is a sign because it contains an octopus, which is in the store's name. Catsiff has conceded that point. And, as a sign, it clearly violates the sign code because it is much larger than is allowable.
This is not a free speech matter because the issue is not the message portrayed by a whimsical painting of the purple octopus but the size of that painting. If the same painting had been done at the proper scale Catsiff and the city would not be battling in court.
Catsiff's attorney said the issue might be appealed to a higher court. That's certainly Catsiff's right, but we question the wisdom of continuing this expensive and divisive fight.
A more prudent course of action is to comply with the city sign ordinance and work with city officials to gain approval for a mural -- or sign -- that conforms to the law.
The harsh reality facing Catsiff is that a fine of $100 a day has been mounting since he was ordered to take down the mural. At this point, it's at $54,000.
The city should not forgive this fine if it ultimately prevails in court. Doing so would set a horrible precedent that could spur other downtown merchants to disregard other ordinances.
Sign ordinances and other rules are put in place throughout the city for the common good. They serve to ensure the rights of all property owners are protected, which is why the ordinances must be applied in the same way to all.
Again, this is not about the artistic merits of the purple octopus mural. It is only about whether proper procedure was followed in placing the mural, as a sign, above the toy store at 7 E. Main St.
It was not.