New York Times

Union Sues Over Rat Balloon Seizure

By Gail Appleson
April 22, 1999

NEW YORK - 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 alleges.

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