One of the last things a company official wants to find on coming home at night is disgruntled workers picketing the house. Lawmakers keep trying to protect executives from such distress, and the courts keep telling the lawmakers that their efforts are unconstitutional. Two such antipicketing laws were struck down in separate actions last month. The courts have not always been hostile to bans on picketing in residential areas. In the 1970s judges pointed to the governmental need to protect the peace and privacy of residential neighborhoods and found it reasonable to stop picketing there. But in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned such an Illinois statute.

That statute did allow picketing of homes if they were "a place of employment involved in a labor dispute." That would, for instance, let striking nurses picket the home office of a doctor for whom they worked. But, the justices said, if the lawmakers were willing to permit the disruption caused in a residential area by that kind of picketing, they had no good logic for banning all other kinds. To be constitutional, the ban had to focus on exactly the sort of demonstrations most likely to change the nature of a residential neighborhood.

Despite that high court ruling, a Connecticut law similar to the one from Illinois stayed on the books, and a trial court there cited that statute in issuing an injunction against union picketing of the home on the president of a company involved in a labor dispute. On June 2, in French v. Amalgamated Local 376, the Connecticut Supreme Court held the law -- and therefore the injunction -- invalid as a violation of the First Amendment.

Eight days later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis threw out a similar ordinance from Fayetteville, Ark. That ban, adopted initially to stop antiabortion pickets from demonstrating at the homes of physicians who performed abortions, made unlawful all residential picketing, without the loophole that helped doom the Illinois law. Nonetheless, the appellate judges found in Pursley v. Fayetteville that it was unconstitutional because it was so broad that it could stop picketing of residences in more commercial areas, where there is little tranquility anyway.

The rulings make it clear, however, that the issue is not closed. Both acknowledge that picketing in residential areas can be curtailed by rules that would be impermissible if applied to downtowns. Restrictions on the numbers of pickets allowed or the hours during which they can demonstrate would get a judicial okay if the restraints were not unreasonably severe, the opinions said. The St. Louis judges even suggested that they might uphold a total ban on picketing of homes if it was narrowly tailored to apply only to those homes in quiet, protected areas where disruptions are rare.

In other cases, courts ruled that:

1 A former employe cannot be barred from soliciting business from all of a company's accounts. An accounting firm that tried to bind workers with such a contract provision -- and to enforce it by stopping bonus payments if a former employe violated the ban -- was held by the Nebraska Supreme Court to be imposing on unreasonable restraint. Only a ban on soliciting those clients with whom the employe had previous personal contact would be enforceable, the Justices said. Polly v. Hilderman & Co., June 19 A company cannot insist that claims of age discrimination be settled by arbitration, even if the employe making the claim has promised to submit all personnel disputes to arbitration. Those promises are not enforceable in court if Congress intended to preempt them with a right to sue. And the U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J., decided that is what the lawmakers intended in passing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. In related matters -- such as allegations of race or sex discrimination that would violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- courts have reasoned that arbitration should not be forced on unwilling workers. Steck v. Smith Barney, June 4 A government can't deny a publication sidewalk dispensing machines unless it has set down precise regulations on what is allowed land and what is not. The New York Court of Appeals -- the highest in the state -- said New York City was wrong in saying The Learning Annex could not be distributed from such boxes. Although the "magazine" is essentially a listing of adult education courses given by a for-profit company, the First Amendment ban on interference with the rights of a free press still apply, the justices ruled. The holding does not mean anyone who wants can put up a sidewalk newsrack, but it does mean there must be objective standards governing who gets permission and who goes not. NYC v. American School, Juneendquad Moskowitz covers legal affairs for McGraw-Hill World News.