A federal district court today affirmed the right of Latino day laborers in Oyster Bay, Long Island to seek work in public spaces, following a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union and LatinoJustice PRLDEF. The decision permanently struck down a town ordinance that prohibited people from soliciting work for violating the First Amendment.
“Our constitution protects the rights of American newcomers seeking the opportunity to work hard for a better quality of life,” said Corey Stoughton, NYCLU Supervising Senior Staff Attorney. “We should be celebrating the entrepreneurial spirit of day laborers not stigmatizing them.”
For nearly two decades, Latino day laborers have made their living in the Long Island town of Oyster Bay gathering together to solicit work. But in 2009, the town enacted an ordinance that targeted these laborers and attempted to prevent them from seeking work. The ordinance would have had a devastating effect on the workers, who typically depend on these temporary jobs to feed their families and frequently lack transportation to seek work elsewhere.
The ordinance prohibited standing on the sidewalk to solicit employment, and barred drivers from stopping to hire these workers. Supposedly enacted to make sidewalks and streets safer for pedestrians and traffic, the ordinance violated the First Amendment by outlawing basic speech such as “waving arms,” “making hand signals,” “waving signs” and “jumping up and down.” It criminalized this speech in “all of the areas dedicated to public use for public street purposes” including parks, sidewalks, medians and curbs. Moreover, it criminalized a wide variety of constitutionally protected speech that presents no threat to traffic safety, such as students soliciting cars for a high school carwash fundraiser.
In its decision, the Eastern District of New York struck down the ordinance for being in violation of the First Amendment, which protects the rights of day laborers to gather in public spaces and ask for work. The decision also noted that there are current public safety laws in place – such as New York State’s vehicle and traffic laws – that can be used to protect motorists and pedestrians.
“Judge Hurley has flatly rejected Oyster Bay's assertion that solicitation of employment by day laborers is unlawful,” said Alan Levine, Special Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “It is a view shared by courts around the country. There is a long and honorable tradition in this country by which men and women, standing and marching in public places, have made known their availability for work. It is time for Oyster Bay and other municipalities to acknowledge that day laborers, like other workers before them, have this fundamental right.”
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of the Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project – two Long Island organizations that protect the rights of Latino day laborers, and came in the context of spate of local laws that overstepped constitutional boundaries in an effort by states and municipalities to assert themselves on immigration-related matters. The Town of Oyster Bay and Town Supervisor John Venditto were listed as defendants.
Lawyers on the case were Corey Stoughton, Jordan Wells and Arthur Eisenberg for the NYCLU; Alan Levine and Jackson Chin for PRLDEF; and Lee Gelernt for the ACLU.