IBEW defends hate speech in court

More inflatable rat stories: here

The new union label: Giant, inflatable rat

A giant 10-foot rat balloon was at the center of a fight over freedom of speech in arguments heard by the New Jersey state Supreme Court Tuesday involving the partial shutdown of a union's protest against a company's labor practices.

In April 2005, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269 protested outside a Gold's Gym in Lawrence Township, angry about what it considered to be unfair wages and benefits the contracted Morgan Electric was paying workers. Along with passing out bills to the public, they inflated a 10-foot rat balloon -- a common symbol of notifying the public of allegedly unfair labor practices.

The balloon was taken down initially after Lawrence police officers told the protesters the rat violated a local ordinance prohibiting inflatable balloon signs aimed at attracting the attention of pedestrians or motorists. But it was raised again 45 minutes later. The officers then cited IBEW assistant business administrator Wayne DeAngelo -- now a Democratic assemblyman from the 14th District. DeAngelo was later fined $100 plus $33 in court costs.

"This is a powerful, symbolic message," Andrew Watson, attorney for DeAngelo, told the Supreme Court. "There is no ample alternative means to reach a broad audience like this inflatable rat. Handbilling doesn't do it, interaction with the community doesn't do it."

DeAngelo said later Tuesday the ordinance was inconsistent in the way it applies restrictions because it allows for grand opening signs or searchlights to be used by businesses.

"They would allow us to utilize that same rat for a grand opening or a commercial reason, but we are not allowed to use it for workers' rights," said DeAngelo.

Lawrence Township, however, claims its ordinance is not arbitrary and is narrow in its prohibitions. John Dember, representing the municipality, said the ordinance in no way violates freedom of expression and that the township was not targeting unions.

"The township may enforce restrictions on time, place and manner. The complete ban on inflated balloon signs in a public forum does not provide any differentiation on content," said Dember.

Although the protest took place in a public forum where restrictions on speech are limited, Dember argued the ordinance was constitutional because it was content-neutral and allowed for other means of showing protest.

Two lower courts previously ruled in favor of Lawrence and the constitutionality of the ordinance. The Supreme Court, as usual, reserved its ruling for a later date.


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