In early 2014, a union protest began in a small town. On its second day, a town code enforcement officer took issue with one notorious protester—Scabby the Rat, an inflatable 6- to 25-foot rat balloon symbolizing union protests—which was staked into the ground on a public right-of-way. The officer instructed the union to deflate Scabby because it violated an ordinance prohibiting signs in that location. The union filed suit arguing that the 2014 ordinance and its enforcement violated its First Amendment rights.
In its February 14, 2019 decision, the Seventh Circuit recognized that laws may restrict protected speech in a public forum if the restriction is content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leaves open ample alternative ways to communicate the target message. It agreed with the district court’s findings that the ordinance was content-neutral, enforced in a non-discriminatory manner, narrowly tailored to meet its purpose of prohibiting “signs” on a public right-of-way that might obstruct or distract drivers, and that the union had ample alternative means to communicate its message, including picket signs and sandwich boards. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the town.
Although the town prevailed, employers (and their municipalities) must be mindful of the rights of employees and other residents, constitutional and otherwise, when regulating their speech and expressions. Although the Seventh Circuit declined to rule on the merits of an amended 2015 ordinance relating to “signs,” it warned that the town should be careful not to selectively excuse compliance with restrictions against signs or inflatables, such as holiday symbols, or it may have difficulty defending Scabby’s deflation in the future.
Construction and General Laborers’ Union No. 330 v. Town of Grand Chute, No. 14-C-455 (Feb. 14, 2019).