Balloon not first amendment issue at race

Published 12:46 am Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A hot-air balloon emblazoned with the slogan of Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump caused a brief stir when it appeared at the Natchez balloon race last weekend.

Some people in the crowd complained over the partisan nature of the balloon and race officials eventually asked the pilot to deflate the balloon, which he did.

Had the balloonist simply inflated the balloon privately, on public property, the matter would have been a simple First Amendment issue. He would be free to legally present his opinions openly.

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Unfortunately, since he was appearing at a private event in which balloonists are provided free lodging and free fuel to fly for the weekend, the balloonist and his political message fall under the rules of the private, by-invitation event, not the First Amendment.

Balloon race officials have said they had an unwritten policy that precluded political campaign messaging from the large, floating billboards. They promise to formalize that policy going forward to potentially avoid another such issue.

In the past, specific candidates have sponsored balloons, effectively purchasing much smaller, sponsorship banners that were placed on the baskets of the balloons.

The large Trump message should have been treated like many other, large corporate messages — beer bottlers, fitness brands, etc. — that have appeared on balloons in the past and were paid for by the sponsoring entity.

Most spectators probably don’t realize large corporate balloons often pay to participate in such festivals since their advertisement will be on display to thousands of eyeballs.

Had the balloon been paying to display the message, rather than simply taking advantage of the high visibility, the matter could have been more quickly settled. The purpose of the race is, we should all remember, to raise money for a non-profit, not raise the ire of one side or the other of a political equation.

In the end, however, no one was truly harmed by the display.

The balloon went up and it came down, and the balloonist got the attention he sought. Now it is time to move on to more important matters.