Inflatable rats and car horns aren’t free speech. Flipping the bird? Totally protected…

Courts often must parse what does and does not count as protected speech, and apparently, a giant inflatable rat doesn’t fit the bill, according to a court ruling last week:

A Wisconsin town’s sign ordinance did not violate a local union’s free speech rights, even though the ordinance prohibited the union from displaying its 12-foot inflatable rat, Scabby the Rat, to symbolize its protest against a local business.

The union erected Scabby the Rat to protest a local car dealership in the Town of Grand Chute, alleging the dealership was paying nonstandard, lower wages to masons on a construction project. The union placed Scabby the Rat in a right-of-way on a major thoroughfare near the dealership, drawing attention to protesting picketers nearby.

In other cases, courts have ruled in favor of some “different” forms of speech, such as holding protest signs, yelling slogans or even singing.

A Wisconsin appeals court ruled on Thursday morning that a state requirement for singers in the state Capitol to obtain a permit was unconstitutional.

The ruling by Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg of the 4th District Court of Appeals appears to be the last word on the matter, which became a hot-button issue during the summer of 2013 when Capitol Police arrested hundreds of protesters for singing in the Capitol rotunda without a permit.

However, my favorite parsing of what is and isn’t free speech involves a probation and parole official from Wisconsin who was disgruntled with then-Gov. Scott Walker.

Between 5:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. each day, someone in a black Honda would drive past Walker’s house in Wauwatosa, blow his horn like crazy, give the finger through his sunroof and shout, “Recall Walker.”

He was ticketed for using his horn, a charge he fought to no avail:

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Mary Kuhnmuench found that there was no precedent for horn-honking being constitutionally protected political speech. Brodhead, who represented himself, was fined $166.20.

That said, he was still able to continue his protest without the use of a horn, and he did so.

During the workweek, he leaves his downtown office around 5 p.m., drives by the governor’s residence near the corner of N. 68th St. and W. Blue Mound Road, offers a one-finger salute and bellows his support of the Walker recall effort.

Only now he doesn’t blow his horn.

So, you can call someone a rat, but you can’t display a giant rat. Conversely, you can flip the bird at someone to honk them off, but don’t honk at them while you do it.

Who says the law isn’t fun?

Leave a Reply