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Union finds one rat, possibly dirty and damaged, is worth fighting for

By The Associated Press
04.22.99

NEW YORK — A labor union's inflatable rat has been all but exterminated, at least temporarily, by a police department that found the 30-foot-tall creature to be too much of a pest.

Now, Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous Waste Laborers union wants it back, pointing to the First Amendment for constitutional support in its cause.

"It's locked up," said Lowell Peterson, a union lawyer who filed a lawsuit on April 19 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan to try to spring the rat, which he says is the biggest and most popular in the city.

Officers snatched the rat on April 8 even as it obeyed traffic laws, resting in a single lane of West 52nd Street amidst parked cars, Peterson said.

The rat was used to attract public attention and as a symbol of a non-union worker in union demonstrations and when leaflets were handed out, he said.

"The rat in no manner impeded traffic on the public streets, roads or sidewalks," according to language in the lawsuit that repeatedly personified the rat, seemingly as a model citizen.

However, Marilyn Mode, the Police Department's chief spokeswoman, said the rat was not so well-behaved.

"This balloon was impeding traffic on a relatively narrow street and blocking legal parking spots," she said. "We asked them numerous times to remove it. They refused so consequently we did remove it ourselves. Beyond that, I really can't comment because the matter is in litigation."

Lorna Goodman, a spokeswoman for the city Law Department, said she had not seen the complaint and could not comment.

The rat was seized when police arrested a union member handing out leaflets in front of CBS offices, the lawsuit said.

It was then taken to a nearby police station on West 54th Street where it was tossed onto the ground in the middle of a parking lot, the union alleged.

"The last we saw of the rat it was being dragged across the parking lot behind the precinct," Peterson said.

The union is demanding unspecified damages and that the police department return the rat and pay for the cost of any repairs or its replacement.

Peterson said the police violated the First Amendment when they seized the rat, a key component in the union's efforts to express itself.

"It is a classic First Amendment case in my view," Peterson said.

The union used a much shorter rat, about 14 feet tall, until it spent several thousand dollars on the larger rat about six months ago, the lawyer said.

The rat was shared with other unions and made an appearance somewhere almost every day until it was captured, he said.

He said he went to the precinct to try to retrieve it but was told it had been seized in connection with a crime and that it needed to be held as evidence.

"It's not evidence. It's a lump of plastic," Peterson said.

Regardless of the outcome of the rat caper, Peterson says the city has not seen the last of the union rats, which he predicts will proliferate because of their popularity.

"There is a demand for more rats. They're catching on. They're becoming popular," he said.


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

Related

6th Circuit: City can't bar rat balloon at union protests

Appeals court says Fairfield, Ohio, showed no evidence that 12-foot-tall inflatable rodent was a hazard. 02.11.05

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