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Inflatable rat can't be declared a pest, rules N.J. high court

By The Associated Press
02.05.09

TRENTON, N.J. — Even a 10-foot inflatable rat has free-speech rights in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court ruled today.

In a case that pitted an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union local against a central Jersey town, the high court ruled unanimously that the rodent is protected speech under the First Amendment.

"The township's elimination of an entire medium of expression without a readily available alternative renders the ordinance overbroad," Justice John E. Wallace Jr. wrote for the court in State of New Jersey v. DeAngelo.

The super-sized rat, sitting on its hind legs and bearing fangs, is a national symbol used by organized labor to signal a labor dispute. It had been blown up and displayed at a 2005 labor event in Lawrence Township until police enforced a law that bans banners, streamers and inflatable signs, except those announcing grand openings.

A labor official was fined $100 plus $33 court costs.

The event was staged by the union to protest low wages being paid to electricians by an out-of-area contractor.

An appeals court panel ruled in 2007 that the town could ban the big black rat and affirmed the labor official's fines. The panel found the ordinance was content-neutral and was aimed at enhancing aesthetics and protecting public health and safety.

The union appealed. Its lawyers argued the ordinance violated their right to free expression and suppressed protest.

The township claimed the union's use of the rat was a form of commercial speech, less deserving of First Amendment protections.

The state Supreme Court found that the township’s law wasn't neutral, and therefore was unconstitutional. It said an ordinance "that prohibits a union from displaying a rat balloon, while at the same time authorizing a similar display as part of a grand opening, is content-based."

Township attorney John Dember said, "(The court) did find that we need to do some tweaking because of the freedom-of-expression limitation, which we'll undertake immediately to correct."

Wayne DeAngelo, a state assemblyman who was president of the union at the time, said the inflatable rat was one of many used around the county by labor unions. He knew of no other union that had been fined for using it.


Related

Rats! NYC union's inflatable rodent suffers another blow (news)
'The rat is an integral part of [the union's] expressive activity,' says union attorney. 07.14.99

Labor union 1, Ohio city 0 in bout over rat balloon (news)
Federal judge issues temporary order allowing International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to keep using inflatable rodent during protests. 10.31.03

6th Circuit: City can't bar rat balloon at union protests (news)
Appeals court says Fairfield, Ohio, showed no evidence that 12-foot-tall inflatable rodent was a hazard. 02.11.05

Inflatable rats' future at labor demonstrations up in the air (news)
National Labor Relations Board judge rules balloons constitute unlawful picketing; meanwhile, Ohio city appeals 6th Circuit decision that giant rodents are protected speech. 10.12.05

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