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Federal judge rules Oyster Bay day laborer law is unconstitutional

Oyster Bay Town Hall on March 26, 2012.

Oyster Bay Town Hall on March 26, 2012. Credit: Nicole Bartoline

A federal judge Thursday ruled that an Oyster Bay law barring day laborers from soliciting work on town sidewalks and streets is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Denis Hurley said the law violates the laborers' right to free speech and is "extremely far-reaching," going well beyond the safety concerns the town had used to justify the law.

The 2009 ordinance stemmed from concerns over day laborers who have for years gathered along and just off Forest Avenue in Locust Valley looking for work. The laborers, many of them immigrants, wait for passing drivers to offer them construction, landscaping and other work.

Attorneys for the town argued that the laborers pose safety risks by darting into traffic to negotiate with drivers and blocking pedestrians from walking down sidewalks -- allegations the laborers' attorneys dispute. The law prohibited any person from making any type of action on a public right of way that announces availability for work to a passing driver, and barred drivers from stopping to offer employment.

"This was really like the town trying to deny public spaces to particular groups of people, who have a right to that public space just like everyone else . . . ," said Corey Stoughton, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which helped represent the laborers on behalf of Centro de la Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley and the Workplace Project.

"They are just out there trying to earn a living and the First Amendment gives us all a right to access a public space," Stoughton said.

Town Supervisor John Venditto released a statement late Thursday afternoon saying officials are "disappointed" with the decision.

"Because of the ongoing threat to the health, safety and welfare of all Town residents, including the day laborers themselves, we will review the court's decision with a view towards determining whether or not to take an appeal therefrom," he wrote.

In 2010, Hurley suspended enforcement of the law while he considered arguments in the case. Yesterday's ruling was in response to the plaintiffs' July request for a summary judgment to permanently block enforcement.

Hurley wrote that there already are state and local laws that bar obstructing vehicle or pedestrian traffic. The ordinance, he said, is so broad that it prohibits a child from selling lemonade at the end of a neighbor's driveway or students advertising a car wash.

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