Halloween is not just for children anymore. By some estimates, Americans spend over $8 billion on Halloween. That includes roughly $2.9 billion on costumes, $2.3 billion on candy, $2.2 billion on decorations, with the remaining $600 million spent on greeting cards and pet accessories. But candy retailers and costume makers are not the only ones trying to capitalize on the inclination during Halloween for money to change hands.
Indeed, more than a few “entrepreneurial” individuals have tried to take advantage of All Hallow’s Eve, though their venue of choice has not been a haunted house, but a courthouse. At least one has taken advantage of constitutional protections and used Halloween as a creative way to add fuel to a fiery neighborhood feud. Others yet, with delicate sensibilities, see Halloween as a religious affront that must be stopped. These cases range from spooky to hilarious to just plain deranged.
The Screaming Carpet and the Hostile Work Environment
One plaintiff, a Puerto Rican employee of the Department of Justice of Puerto Rico, sued her employers for damages arising from creating and subjecting the employee to a hostile work environment and violating her free exercise of religion, among others. Among the plaintiff’s allegations were the following:
From the time [Plaintiff] began work, she objected to the decoration of government offices with witches and goblins during the Halloween season because, as a Pentecostal Christian, she found this celebration of paganism offensive.
In October 2004 the Halloween decorations at the Department of Justice were more elaborate, and, if possible, more pagan than ever. In particular there was a carpet that emitted a horrific scream whenever anyone walked on it. This scream was a continual reminder to [Plaintiff] that her religious beliefs were not respected by her employer.
After an analysis of the facts and the law, the Court dismissed her complaint, finding “[t]he cats, goblins or screeching mat alone do not convey an endorsement of any religious belief. Such decorations, like Halloween costumes and parties, are linked to the seasonal celebration of a fun-loving tradition in which children are particularly involved in classrooms, neighborhood gatherings and trick or treating. … Halloween lost its religious and superstitious overtones long ago.”
Double Double, Toil and Trouble
In a 1994 Florida case, the parent of a student sued the school alleging that the school’s use of symbols of witches, cauldrons, and brooms created an excessive entanglement with religion (specifically, the Wiccan religion) and therefore violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Both the trial court and appellate court found in favor of the school.
The court’s decision hardly needed the justification it provided: “the costumes and decorations serve to make Halloween a fun day for students and serve an educational purpose by enriching their educational background and cultural awareness,” which promotes a secular, not religious, purpose, and therefore does not violate the Establishment Clause.
Costumes for Customs
Not all Halloween cases involve opportunistic plaintiffs, however. For example, in a 2003 international trade case, the Federal Circuit court of appeals was tasked with classifying certain imports for the purpose of the imposition of international tariffs. The defendant, the U.S. Government, argued that the United States Customs Service’s classification of Halloween costumes as “festive articles” was appropriate, whereas, Rubie’s Costume Company, the plaintiff (and the largest manufacturer of costumes in the U.S.) believed the Custom Service had it wrong, and that the costumes would more appropriately be classified as “wearing apparel.”
In a 7,000-word opinion, the Circuit Court weighed the various factors and concluded, “[w]hen the imported textile costumes are of a flimsy nature and construction, lacking in durability and generally not recognized as normal articles of wearing apparel, it is neither illogical nor unreasonable to conclude that the subject merchandise is classifiable as festive articles.”
Tombstone Insults Are Protected Free Speech
At the climax of a neighborhood feud, one neighbor erected six tombstones in his yard one October. He inscribed them with descriptions of his offending neighbors’ deaths. Two of the six read as follows:
Old Man Crimp was a
Gimp who couldn’t hear.
Sliced his wife from ear to ear.
She died … he was fried.
Now they’re together
Again side by side!
~ 1720 ~
Here lies Jimmy,
The old towne idiot.
Mean as sin even without his gin.
No longer does he wear
That stupid old grin …
On no, not where
They’ve sent him!
The court considered the tombstones under the “fighting words” doctrine, which inhibits the freedom of speech insofar as they “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” However, “speech inflicting psychic trauma alone—without any tendency to provoke responsive violence or an immediate breach of the peace,” does not qualify as “fighting words,” and is still constitutional protected. Thus, insulting tombstones are fair game.
The House that Was Haunted as a Matter of Law
One case from 1991 begins, “Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists.” After discovering that the house was haunted, the plaintiff sought to rescind the sale. The trial court refused to allow the rescission and enforced the contract. The appellate court, though, sided with the plaintiff.
The court concluded, “the buyer …, as a resident of New York City, cannot be expected to have any familiarity with the folklore of the Village of Nyack. Not being a ‘local,’ plaintiff could not readily learn that the home he had contracted to purchase is haunted. Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller are parapsychic or psychogenic, having reported their presence in both a national publication (Readers’ Digest) and the local press (in 1977 and 1982, respectively), defendant is estopped to deny their existence and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted.” The court continued, “the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.” In other words, the seller has claimed it is haunted, did not tell the buyer, who is not from these parts, that it was haunted, and cannot now claim it isn’t. And because the buyer cannot discern the hauntedness from reasonable inspection, he is excused from performing his otherwise valid contract.
The Witch Hat Which Wasn’t All That
A patent case going back to 1953 found two parties in a dispute over a witch’s hat. The plaintiff claimed to have designed a distinctive hat that defendant misappropriated, and sued the defendant for all profits made from the alleged copy. “The ‘witch hat’ or ‘Halloween hat’ of the plaintiff is a cone-shaped hat, with a serrated or scalloped edge running the length or height of the cone and containing a brim which is oval in shape. Plaintiff claims that it placed this hat on the market in 1946 and that the characteristics of a serrated edge and an oval shape had never before appeared on a ‘witch hat’ or ‘Halloween hat.’”
According to the witch-hat plaintiff, the scalloping of the cone hat and its oval shape grant him a monopoly over the design. The court disagreed, reflecting, “[o]ur grandmothers have engaged in scalloping … They would apply these shapes to lace, embroidery, cloths or other materials. Scalloping was and is of common usage. Probably no student of the needle trades would ever think of claiming its originality.” As to whether the oval shape granted plaintiff special privileges, the court shared, “As we stop to look at our own hats, we discover that the brim and head opening are and have been during our lives oval in shape. Can this shape when combined with scalloping of part of the hat be the basis for a monopoly? The answer is obvious.” The court found for the defendant.