In a unanimous decision issued last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the right of free speech in a labor dispute trumps local zoning ordinances which prohibit signs, balloons, or other methods of verbal expression. In State v. DeAngelo, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the right of a local union to place a 12 foot rubberized rat on a picket line to publicize its labor dispute with a non-union contractor. The inflatable rat is often associated with efforts to advise the public about labor unrest at a particular location. This practice however, ran contrary to a local zoning ordinance in Lawrence Township, where the dispute arose. The Township zoning ordinance specifically prohibited signs, inflated balloons, banners, or other types of advertising.
Wayne DeAngelo was the union business agent who was ordered by police to remove the inflatable rat because the local zoning ordinance prohibited such demonstrations. When DeAngelo refused, he was given a summons by the local police for violating the ordinance. A trial court and the intermediate appellate court both ruled in favor of the Township, concluding that the sign ordinance was a legitimate method to control "visual pollution", and was not directed specifically at union disputes.
The New Jersey Supreme Court took a broader view and unanimously reversed the conviction. It held that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression embodied requires that local zoning ordinances give way to peaceful and non-verbal methods for communicating with the public. A ban on signs or "inflatable rats", when applied to a labor dispute involving expressions of speech, is an unconstitutional and overbroad method of regulating matters of traditional local concern. The Supreme Court did acknowledge that a township has the right to regulate the "time, manner and placement" of such signs or demonstrations. However, a total prohibition upon such efforts to communicate with the public runs afoul of the right to freedom of speech.