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Giant rats once again permitted in New Jersey sky

A strange case of freedom of speech comes to a head

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In our Western culture, we generally don't get on too well with rats. They're chubby, furry, unclean and vicious. Eastern cultures give rats credence as being creative, honest, generous and ambitious. But down states-side, when you see the depiction of a rat standing on his hind legs and bearing his teeth, you're not supposed to think of any of the above attributes.

That growling, standing rodent is used by organized labour to signify a labour dispute and that's exactly what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union local were trying to let people know when they floated up an inflatable three-metre rat in New Jersey.

The New Jersey police, apparently upset by the menacing image of an angry rat in the sky, enforced a law that bans banners, streamers and inflatable signs with the exception of ones that announce grand openings. The rat had to come down and a labour official was forced to pay a whopping $100 fine along with $33 in court fees.

An appeals court affirmed the police's decision and determined that the town's law was content-neutral and only aimed at enhancing aesthetics and protecting public health and safety (because the balloon rat might spread disease?).

The labour union was understandably upset with the monopoly that grand opening signs, streamers and oversized balloons now had on the sky and so the case went to the state Supreme Court. Justice John E. Wallace Jr. determined that, "The township's elimination of an entire medium of expression without a readily available alternative renders the ordinance overbroad."

In other words, they've gone too far this time. The decision was further explained when it was stated that an ordinance "that prohibits a union from displaying a rat balloon, while at the same time authorizing a similar display as a part of a grand opening, is content based."

We tend to have some funny dispositions towards free speech when it comes to words or images that we find disagreeable. We'll fight for our freedoms to speak our truths and even for our neighbor's freedoms to speak their truths. But when there's something that shows up in front of our eyes that our mind doesn't like we're often a little too quick to try and silence it for one reason or another.

There are a lot of silencing tools at our disposal. We can say it's done in the name of "enhancing aesthetics" or "protecting public health and safety." At times there's the supposition that if, by saying, or showing, something that might incite a touch of violence, it's better not to communicate it at all.

Any place a sign goes up or a word gets printed, someone has to take responsibility and when it comes to angry phone calls from the public or the exchange of blows, no one really wants to deal with the headache.

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