Labor union 1, Ohio city 0 in bout over rat balloon

By The Associated Press
10.31.03

FAIRFIELD, Ohio — A federal judge says a labor union can continue to use a rat balloon at protest rallies, despite the city's objections that it blocks the public right of way.

Officials with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers say U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith's ruling upholds the union's free-speech rights.

On Oct. 27, the judge granted the union a temporary order allowing it to keep using the rat as a symbol during protests outside an auto dealership in this city 20 miles north of Cincinnati. A hearing is to be scheduled on whether to make the order permanent.

"My clients are prepared to defend our position all the way up to the Supreme Court," union lawyer David Cook said. "My clients have said they will do whatever is necessary to protect their right to protest, using the rat as a symbol."

Fairfield plans to challenge the ruling, said its lawyer John Clemmons.

"We don't believe they have a constitutional right to place that rat balloon in the right of way," he said.

Union members used the 12-foot rat balloon at a July 31 protest outside a Fairfield auto dealership. The National Labor Relations Board had concluded that the dealership committed an unfair labor practice by refusing to negotiate with the union over labor issues.

Fairfield cited a union vice president, Lynn Tucker, for violating a city ordinance for placing the balloon in the public right of way along a street outside the dealership.

The union sued the city in August. Beckwith ruled that the city's ordinance as applied to the rat is unconstitutional.

She said union members must remove the balloon from the right of way at the conclusion of each day's demonstration, cannot obstruct traffic, may not leave the balloon unattended and cannot permanently secure it. Union officials said they haven't left the balloon unattended, a concern the city raised.

Cook said that if the judge's decision stands, the union would ask the court to order Fairfield to pay money damages to the union. The city would fight any demand by the union for damages, Clemmons said.