On February 5, 2008, in State v. DeAngelo, Docket No. A-73-07, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a municipality violated free speech rights by banning temporary signs on public streets, including a 10-foot high inflatable rat at a labor protest. This case was the subject of a previous blog entry wherein our office analyzed the oral argument which took place in September 2008.

The Court unanimously called a Lawrence Township ordinance, which prohibited “banners, pennants, streamers…portable signs, balloons or other inflated signs (except grand opening signs,” unduly restrictive of free speech and expression. Specifically, Justice John Wallace, Jr. wrote that the ordinance “is content-based, does not fairly advance any governmental interest, and is not narrowly tailored to prevent no more than the exact source of that evil that is seeks to remedy.” 

By way of background, in 2005, Wayne DeAngelo, a senior official with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 269, was fined $100 and assessed $33 in costs for using the inflatable rat to protest a Gold’s Gym being built in the township without union labor. A trial judge and the Appellate Division panel rejected constitutional challenges by DeAngelo and the union, but a dissenting appeals judge, Jack Sabatino, agreed the ordinance was constitutionally deficient.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Wallace said DeAngelo’s protest was protected by the state and federal constitutions, as to both content and location. To support same, he cited U.S. Supreme Court precedents holding that public streets, parks, and sidewalks are traditionally public forums that occupy a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection” and that government cannot restrict expressive activity in such venues without a “compelling reason.”

The Court also rejected the rationale advanced by the township that the ordinance was designed to promote aesthetics and maintain public safety. Specifically, the Court stated, “although they are salutary goals, they do not justify a content-based restriction on free speech” and that an ordinance that prohibits a union from displaying a rat balloon, while authorizing a similar display as part of a grand opening, is content-based.

This ruling is expected to have statewide implications since municipalities across New Jersey have similar ordinances. Therefore, many municipalities will have to rework their own ordinances in order to conform to the ruling. Moreover, according to Andrew Watson, DeAngelo’s attorney, the ruling is a landmark victory for labor activists. Specifically, Watson stated, “this vindicates their [labor union’s] rights to an orderly, non-threatening means of protest.” As such, this case represents another important judicial decision regarding labor protesting and its collision with free speech.