Festival fliers reignite 'hon' controversy

A week before Baltimore's annual homage to the Hon, the hullabaloo over who owns rights to the city's quintessential Everywoman seems to have reignited.

Hampden merchants were taken aback this week to receive a list of things Honfest vendors would be prohibited from selling or saying. No politics. No religion. Nothing bearing the Honfest logo. Nothing that would infringe on the various Hon trademarks. And what chapped folks the most: no cat's-eye glasses.

"You can't restrict cat's-eye sunglasses. That's ridiculous and going too far," says Glenn Bennett, manager of In the Details, a men's and women's clothing store on The Avenue. "This is going to drive me to produce my own Hon T-shirt, except mine is going to be spelled H-U-N because it's more appropriate in this case."

The list of restrictions came just as most people seemed to have gotten past last year's flap over Hampden business owner Denise Whiting's laying claim to the word "Hon," a long-colloquialized term of endearment that, to many, seemed as intrinsic to the city as its red-brick rowhouses.

Then, people were surprised to learn that, over the years, Whiting had not only trademarked the word "Hon," but almost every play on the word she could think of. Like the words "Cafe Hon" and "Honfest" and "Hon Bar" and "Hontown," the name of her newest Hampden shop. Furthermore, she owned the rights to using the three-letter word on everything from napkins, notecards and calendars to pens, shirts, hats, underwear, ties, shorts and even feather boas.

And because Whiting founded and runs Honfest, the city's annual tribute to its apocryphal gal known for her beehive hairdo and cat's-eye glasses, she can dictate what goes there as well.

The reaction last year was as quick as it was defiant.

Thousands of people joined Facebook pages with names like "No One Owns Hon, Hon." They organized a protest along The Avenue. Someone inverted Whiting's well-known oval "Hon" bumper sticker to read "NOH." Quite a few people with Facebook accounts adjusted their settings to make "Hon" their middle name.

But in the six months since the initial outcry, things seemed to have calmed down — until Honfest workers distributed the list of prohibitions to Hampden merchants this week, on pink paper, as part of the Honfest merchant participation application. A merchant who wants to set up a table outside his shop during the festival would have to pay $100 and fill out the application, and that outdoor space would seem to fall under the restrictions.

In addition to the politics, religion, Hon items and cat's-eye shades, the festival would also ban the sale of counterfeit clothes and handbags, weapons of any kind, explosive devices and "any products sold in aerosol spray cans." Vendors also couldn't promote any "hot topic issues."

Bennett said the arrival of the no-no list was like "picking the scab."

Steve Akers, the man who organized last winter's street picketing, says the flier furor has persuaded him to protest next weekend's Honfest — even if he's doing it alone.

Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, starting hearing from a few concerned shop owners almost immediately this week while walking the neighborhood.

"If she's trying to tell local businesses what they can or can't carry in their business during Honfest, that is a problematic overreach," he said. "A lot of the concern is over the cat's-eye sunglasses. Next year, does she add feather boas? And the next year, stretch leopard pants? How far does it go?"

Whiting wasn't available for comment on Friday. But her son, Thomas, who works for the family businesses and Honfest, called the list of restrictions "a way of protecting ourselves."

He said they have included similar language in past merchant applications. "For whatever reason, people are suddenly starting to notice," he says. "I've heard a bit about the cat's-eye glasses."

Thomas Whiting, who says his business cards read "son of a Hon," said the festival restrictions on political, religious and "hot topic issues" were meant to maintain a nonconfrontational, family atmosphere at the event.

He said the rules, particularly those dictating what people can sell at Honfest, are meant to control out-of-area vendors who buy space on The Avenue during the festival — not regular Hampden merchants.

Attorney James B. Astrachan wonders whether obtaining a festival license gives Whiting the right to dictate anything — particularly when it comes to free expression.

With mayoral and City Council elections looming, chances are good that candidates might want to hit a popular event like Honfest to campaign and hand out literature. Thomas Whiting said he'd discourage that, because he wouldn't want it to appear that Honfest was endorsing a candidate.

Astrachan doesn't see how that could be.

"In my mind's eye, the street or the sidewalk is a public forum where people are free to exercise their rights," said Astrachan, who teaches trademark law as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "She's telling you this is a private event."

City Solicitor George Nilson says Whiting can lawfully prohibit someone from setting up a political booth because people pay for that space and Honfest can regulate it. But she can't stop a candidate from walking through the event and passing out bumper stickers.

He also thinks Whiting is within her rights to ban sales of cat's-eye sunglasses.

"It's a little odd. And perhaps annoying to some. But it's within the bounds of what's legally OK," he said.

Some Hampden merchants thought the restrictions were reasonable.

Maurice Lease, owner of Dreamland, said it's Whiting's event to do with as she pleases. He believes the rules will help keep the festival sane and trouble-free.

"It's like you're throwing a party and you're going to make pigs-in-a-blanket," he said. "You tell everyone, 'Don't bring those because I'm making them.' It's her party."

Charlotte Elliott, who owns the Charlotte Elliott shop and helps organize Hampdenfest, another of the neighborhood's annual events, said she never restricts what merchants can sell — or almost never.

"I told one paying vendor he could not sell — how do I say this? — those glass pipes that are supposed to be for tobacco but you know they are not used for tobacco," she said.

If she had cat's-eye sunglasses for sale, she said, the rules wouldn't keep her from selling them. She questioned another item on the off-limits list: "Any products sold in aerosol spray cans."

"No aerosol cans?" she said with a laugh. "I wonder if that applies to all that stuff they'll be using in the beehive tent."