By Gail Appleson
April 22, 1999
- A labor union sued the New York City Police Department Wednesday
for violating its free speech rights by seizing its huge inflatable
rat. The hazardous waste union, which filed suit against the city
and its police department in Manhattan federal court, said it
wants the rodent-shaped balloon returned along with unspecified
damages. "The Rat," as it is referred to
in the lawsuit, is up to 30 feet high when inflated. The union
has used the balloon as part of its informational activities.
Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous
Waste Laborers, which represents more than 2,000 employees, said
it had arranged for The Rat to be part of its handbilling efforts
on April 8 near the offices of the CBS television network in Manhattan.
The union said it had positioned The Rat
between two parked vehicles, where the prop did not block traffic
on the streets or sidewalks.
The suit alleges that police officers nevertheless
confiscated the balloon and arrested union member Frederick Bianchi,
charging him with disorderly conduct. The suit says that the actions were selective
because officers ignored other vehicles in the area that were
breaking the law - including taxis parked in front of a fire hydrant
and in an area marked "No Standing Any Time."
The suit also alleges that the police violated
union members' constitutional right to free speech. Members
said they need the prop for informational handbilling.
They further alleged that officers have mistreated
The Rat. "It was tossed from a Police Department
vehicle onto the ground in the middle of the Police Department
parking lot. It was dragged across that ground in a haphazard
manner and left outside, exposed to the elements," the suit