The owners of a Capital Region food truck are suing New York state officials after they were prevented from vending at the Empire State Plaza and Saratoga Race Course. The spat has set off a First Amendment debate.
The owners of the Schenectady-based “Wandering Dago” food truck, which sells Italian foods, have filed a lawsuit against the New York State Racing Association, the state Office of General Services, and other state officials after they were prevented from operating at Saratoga Race Course earlier this summer, kicked out after opening day.
According to the Memorandum of Law for the case, owners of the food truck, Brandon Snooks and Andrea Loguidice, began negotiations with Centerplate, the company that manages food vendors at the track, in January. After extensive preparations for their seven-week contract at Saratoga, which included three days of set up, the hiring of five additional employees, and the purchase of new equipment, at approximately 10 p.m. on opening day, the company was informed by Stephen Travers, NYRA’s Vice President of Hospitality, Guest Services & Group Sales, to halt operation and remove its truck and equipment before 10 a.m. the following morning.
Similarly, the Wandering Dago food truck was prevented from operating at the Empire State Plaza during the summer earlier this year.
George F. Carpinello, the attorney representing the owners of the Wandering Dago food truck, said in both instances, state officials had found that the name of the food truck was offensive.
"Clearly the state officials do not have the authority to ban merchants because someone finds their name to be offensive," said Carpinello. "The Supreme Court and other courts have held that in our society words are allowed to be spoken even if they're considered to be offensive by certain segments of the community because we don't want to give public officials the discretion of what's offensive and what's not offensive."
Carpinello says his clients adopted the name based on their Italian heritage. The term “dago,” which state officials found offensive, refers to Italian-American day laborers who would work “as the day goes.” The term was a more commonly used racial slur in the 20th century, but Carpinello said that his clients do not mean to offend, and that the actions by New York State and NYRA violate his clients’ constitutional rights.
"My clients don't use the word in an offensive way, they use it in an irreverant and playful way," said Carpinello, "but they are Italian-Americans and they're making a statement that they are here and they are proud of their heritage."
In addition to the State of New York, the Office of General Services, NYRA, and other state officials, the lawsuit lists John Does 1-5 to represent any other public employees involved in preventing the operation of the food truck.
A spokesman for NYRA did not respond to a request for comment from WAMC. Heather Groll, a spokeswoman for the New York State Office of General Services, which oversees events at the Empire State Plaza, said in a written statement that office does not comment on pending litigation.
Paul Finkelman, President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy and Senior Fellow in the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, says he believes the officials reached beyond their constitutional powers to exclude the operation of the Wandering Dago.
"You know, I would take the State of New York a lot more seriously when they ban the Cleveland Indians from playing in Yankee Stadium until they get rid of their atrociously racist and really offensive logo, or when the State of New York says the Washington Redskins can't play in football in New York state because the name of the team is much more racist than anything on this little food truck," said Finkelman.
Finkelman said that the right to free speech on property owned by New York State must be protected.
"The state property is a place where people can speak," said Finkelman. "The state of New York seems to have forgotten that."
In addition to representing the owners of the Wandering Dago, Carpinello has also successfully defended company Bad Frog Brewery, Inc. in a case against the New York State Liquor Authority. The decision prevented the state from taking any steps to ban sale of Bad Frog’s products, which featured a logo design with an animated frog extending its middle digit.
The Wandering Dago also faced controversy recently in Schenectady after city residents took offense to the company’s name ahead of a planned food truck rodeo event. The event was indefinitely postponed due to permitting issues.