Federal Appeals Court Affirms Injunction Against Unconstitutional Long Island Ordinance Targeting Day Laborers

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April 26, 2011 —  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today upheld a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of an ordinance in Oyster Bay, Long Island that violates day laborers’ core constitutional right to free speech. As a result of the ruling, day laborers whose livelihoods were threatened because of the ordinance can continue to exercise their First Amendment rights and look for work without being ticketed or fined.

“This ruling is a great victory for the First Amendment and for the day laborers who can continue to work and support their families,” said Corey Stoughton, senior staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union who argued the case before the Second Circuit. “Standing on the sidewalk to let people know that you are available for work is not a crime. The Constitution protects all people in this country, regardless of their background”

The lawsuit, Centro de la Comunidad Hispana v. Town of Oyster Bay, was filed on May 18, 2010 on behalf of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project by the NYCLU, American Civil Liberties Union and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

It challenges an ordinance enacted in September 2009 that prohibits standing on the sidewalk to solicit employment and bars motorists from stopping to solicit employment or hire workers. The Oyster Bay law, enacted purportedly to address traffic and pedestrian safety, criminalizes a wide variety of constitutionally protected speech that presents no threat to traffic safety, including, for example, students soliciting cars for a high school carwash fundraiser.

On May 20, 2010, a federal district judge issued a temporary restraining order halting enforcement of the ordinance. The ruling was a preliminary assessment that the law is likely to be found unconstitutional and that the right to free speech should be protected while the court further considers the matter. Weeks later, the judge granted a preliminary injunction barring the law's enforcement.

Today’s unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit affirms the District Court’s ruling and remands the case to the lower court for trial.

“The overwhelming majority of the people who would have been affected by this ordinance are Latino immigrants, and the courts have ruled time and time again that localities cannot pass ordinances that circumvent federal laws in order to target Latino immigrants,” said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “Local politicians across the country cannot pass anti-immigrant laws that take away constitutional protections and expect to get a way with it.”

For nearly two decades, day laborers have gathered in Oyster Bay, particularly the Hamlet of Locust Valley and the Village of Farmingdale, to find work. After the ordinance passed, the Town stationed law enforcement officers at corners where workers and contractors typically meet, keeping contractors away from the site and intimidating workers seeking employment. The ordinance had a devastating effect on the workers, who typically depend on these jobs to feed themselves and their families, and frequently lack transportation to seek work elsewhere.

Local lawmakers and police officials have never explained why current road safety laws – such as New York State’s vehicle and traffic laws – are inadequate to protect motorists or pedestrians. At the public hearing, no resident or Oyster Bay Town Board member indicated that a single traffic accident had occurred as a result of a day laborer soliciting work. The legislative record on the ordinance contains no evidence that the presence of day laborers causes traffic problems.