Even a 10-foot inflatable rat has free speech rights in New Jersey, the state's Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
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.
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 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 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 is one of many used around the county by labor unions. He knew of no other union that had be fined for using it.