The Constitutional Right of Scabby the Rat

This week, a New York district judge ruled that the inflatable is not going to be exterminated anytime soon.

Carlos Osorio/AP

"Scabby the Rat," a giant inflatable rodent famous for blocking city sidewalks, is here to stay. The monstrous animal and the popular union protest tool is protected by the First Amendment, a New York district judge ruled this week.

Businesses have fought against the eyesore since it was first introduced in 1990, when members of Illinois' International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers wanted a "bigger than life" symbol to embody their protest. Since then, the whiskered creature has been seen at countless picket lines, used both against businesses and other unions.

Scabby brings immediate and negative attention to an enterprise. A union might employ him to draw attention to a strike, a contract negotiation or a protest against some regulation they find unsavory. Scabby inserts passersby into the dialogue as Scabby is so large (in some cases 25 feet) it's hard for pedestrians to use the sidewalk or enter the business, so they stray away. The rodent alienates customers on a number of levels, plus patrons rarely forget a giant rat.

Many businesses have tried to stop Scabby in court and have failed, according to BusinessWeek. Just this week, a New York district judge rejected an asbestos contractor's suit to make local workers get rid of the rat. The contractor argued that a clause in the contract, which bans "disruptive activity" such as strikes, boycotts and pickets, included Scabby. Judge Joseph Bianco of the Eastern District of New York shot down that argument. "To hold otherwise would be to prohibit the union from engaging in any speech that is harmful to plaintiff’s business image," he wrote in the ruling. "[T]he defendants’ peaceful use of a stationary, inflatable rat to publicize a labor protest is protected by the First Amendment."

Scabby's inalienable rights have inspired some unions to expand their inflatable representation, asking Big Sky Balloons, the exclusive producer of the animal, to include different rat colors, rats holding cheese, cockroaches, and Bully the bulldog in their offerings. One of their balloons, Fat Cat, even shows a giant animal grabbing a construction worker by the neck, getting right to the heart of the issue. As for Scabby, an official at the company told Vice that the basic shape of the rat hasn't changed all that much over time, and they are particularly attached to his pink, scabbed stomach. So are the courts, it seems.