TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Even a 10-foot inflatable rat has free
speech rights in New Jersey, the state's Supreme Court ruled
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
"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.
The super-sized rat, sitting on its hind legs and baring its
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
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 law violates their
right to free expression and suppresses 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 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
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 is one of many used
around the county by labor unions. He knew of no other union that
had be fined for using it.