New Jersey Supreme Court to Decide If Town Can Display Super-Sized Inflatable Rat

The state Supreme Court has dealt with such weighty issues as gay marriage, education funding and abortion rights. Now, the high court will turn its attention to whether a 20-foot inflatable rat can be kept out of a New Jersey town.

A three-judge appeals panel ruled Thursday that Lawrence Township could ban the big black rat. But the litigants can appeal automatically to the state Supreme Court because of one judge's partial dissent.

"We're disappointed, but the dissent gives us an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. That's the silver lining," said Andrew Watson, a lawyer arguing for the right of a union local to display the rat during a job site protest.

The super-sized rat — on its hind legs and bearing fangs — had been blown up and situated at a 2005 labor event until police ticketed the senior union official onsite for violating a local sign law.

The event, at Gold's Gym in Lawrence, was staged by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to protest low wages being paid to electricians by an out-of-area contractor. The rat is a symbol used by organized labor to signal a labor dispute or the use of nonunion workers.

The labor official, Wayne DeAngelo, was fined $100 plus $33 court costs for violating a Lawrence Township ordinance preventing the display of the large, rat-shaped balloon.

The law bans banners, streamers and inflatable signs, except those announcing grand openings.

DeAngelo on Thursday vowed to fight on.

"I feel it's restricting a worker's right to protest and bring information out to the public," he said. "The rat has been deemed a picketer by the National Labor Relations Board. It was just doing that."

John V. Dember, the lawyer for the town, sees the case differently.

"We consider this to be a really basic question of a municipality's ability to regulate itself, rather than labor management relations issue," he said.

The appeals panel affirmed DeAngelo's conviction Thursday, rejecting arguments that the sign law is vague, unconstitutional and should be trumped by federal union regulations.

However, DeAngelo's contention that the law violates free speech rights was not rejected entirely.

In a partial dissent, Superior Court Judge Jack Sabatino wrote that he the sign ban may not be fair because it exempts signs announcing grand openings.

Such content discrimination — barring noncommercial signs while exempting some commercial ones — requires further consideration, Sabatino wrote.

"If a Disney retail store had just opened in the township, it could have promoted its wares for the grand opening with a rat-shaped balloon depicting the latest popular animated Disney character, from the movie 'Ratatouille,"' the judge wrote.