17 September 2007

Free Speech for the Rat

I saw a news story recently about an inflatable rat as a free speech case.

At a labor union rally, in Lawrence, NJ, the event organizers set up a super-sized inflatable rubber rat, standing on its hind legs and baring its fangs. The rat was (it seems to me) a rather eloquent form of speech saying, roughly, "guess how we feel about non-union workers undermining our collective-bargaining efforts."

Lawrence Township apparently has an ordinance prohibiting the use of banners, streamers and inflatable signs, except those announcing grand openings.

That "except" ordinance smells fishy to me. On what principled basis does the manager of a new car dealership have greater rights than a union boss? The car dealership might want to set up a giant inflatable Cougar or Impala. That's okay but the rat threatens some interest that the township police need to protect?

A labor official was fined $100 plus court costs. Not a huge deal, but it's the principle of the thing that rankles. A $1 fine would be excessive if it violates his rights -- either to speak freely or to be treated as an equal of the manager of a business having a grand opening.

New Jersey's constitution, BTW, says this: "Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right."

I like that language. It indicates that the right and responsibility for its abuse are two statements of the same fact, not two distinct facts. All to the good. So ... how did an inflatable rat constitute "abuse"?

1 comment:

Henry said...

As a free-speech lawyer, I'd like to make two picky points. First, although you are right that the exception for grand openings is "fishy" (it is unconstitutional content-based discrimination), even a total (content-neutral) ban on banners, streamers, and inflatable signs would be unconstitutional, except in the unlikely event that the town could persuade a court that all banners, streamers, and inflatable signs constitute a hazard.

Second, one cannot abuse a right; one either has a right or does not have it. Thus, if one publishes, for example, a libelous statement, then one does not "abuse" his right to free speech; rather, the right to free speech does not include the right to publish libelous statements. But I don't understand what you mean by "the right and responsibility for its abuse are two statements of the same fact, not two distinct facts." Perhaps you are saying the same thing that I am.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.