On September 23, 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court entertained oral argument in the case of State v. DeAngelo, A-73-07, wherein the issues of labor protesting and free speech collide. The case involves a union official who was fined for displaying a 10-foot tall, inflatable rat at a Lawrence Township labor rally, thereby claiming the municipality violated his constitutional and statutory rights.

Wayne DeAngelo, a senior official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269, was fined $100 and assessed $33 in court costs for using the balloon to protest a gym being built without union labor. DeAngelo asked the Court to declare the ordinance in question, which prohibits “banners, pennants streamers, pinwheels, or similar devices; vehicle signs, portable signs, balloon signs or other inflated signs (except grand opening signs)”, unconstitutional and violative of the National Labor Relations Act. The trial court and the Appellate Division have rejected the challenge, finding the ordinance a valid time, place, and manner restriction on commercial speech.

At the hearing, DeAngelo asserted the ordinance was “overbroad” because it prohibits all forms of signs used in protests, while allowing a variety of other signs, such as political and industrial signs and those at grand openings and real estate sales. In response, the Township asserted the ordinance and its enforcement were both within constitutional bounds, namely because DeAngelo’s use of the rat balloon amounted to commercial speech, which can be regulated.

Despite its listed exceptions, Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto said the ordinance appeared strictly worded and content-neutral. Conversely, Justice Barry Albin seemed troubled by the ordinance because it gave the gym owner permission to use an inflatable sign to announce his grand opening, but barred labor protesters from using inflatable signs at the same location. It will be interesting to see how the Court ultimately rules and addresses the intersection of these important issues. Undoubtedly, the case will be followed closely by labor organizations, who want to ensure their rights are adequately protected.