An Albany food truck entrepreneur branded his mobile barbeque “Wandering Dago.” The successful proprietor applied to the State of New York to sell food at the Empire State Plaza, only to be denied. The New York Racing Association also ejected the food truck from the Saratoga Race Course. Wandering Dago is suing the state government entities.
What’s the hub-bub all about? The First Amendment protects the right to free speech, in this case, in the form of a business trade name. However, the government can limit or restrict the right of free speech in certain circumstances including the use of derogatory language or language that could result in public unrest or a disturbance of the peace.
In the pending lawsuit, each side has a different meaning attached to the term “dago.” The proprietor argues the name is a tribute to his Italian heritage and refers to day laborers who were paid “as the day goes.” The government argues the term is an ethnic slur and irredeemable controversial speech not entitled to protection. Potential problems for the state include hostile workplace environment by state employees of Italian heritage. The situation is similar to the controversy over the NFL team the “Redskins.”
The lawsuit is currently focused on the extent of speech regulation the state is entitled to exercise at these locations. Free speech rights are heightened at government locations but the state argues these are “nonpublic” and not related to the government purposes, rather, to private commercial endeavors that are not within the scope of public fora.
It will be interesting to watch this case. The take-away is that your business choices can have consequences. Public opinion and governmental agencies are less tolerant of business policies viewed as discriminatory or politically incorrect. The public will be using its purchasing power as its own tool of free expression.