Monday, October 31, 2011

Honking Horn As Protected Speech

The Washington State Supreme Court sustained a constitutional challenge to a county noise ordinance that prohibited honking for any reason other than public safety. A defendant was convicted for honking a car horn at 6 am in front of a neighbor's house.

The court majority:

 A moment's reflection brings to mind numerous occasions in which a person honking a vehicle horn will be engaging in speech intended to communicate a message that will be understood in context.  Examples might include: a driver of a carpool vehicle who toots a horn to let a coworker know it is time to go, a driver who enthusiastically responds to a sign that says "honk if you support our troops,"wedding guests who celebrate nuptials by sounding their horns, and a motorist who honks a horn in support of an individual picketing on a street corner.  Thus, we reject the Court of Appeals' conclusion that horn honking is a type of conduct that does not involve speech.  Immelt, 150 Wn. App. at 687.  Horn honking does  constitute protected speech in many instances, regardless of whether it would constitute protected speech in Immelt's particular case...

The horn ordinance here does not survive scrutiny.  It is substantially overbroad, "not only in an absolute sense, but also relative to the statute's plainly legitimate sweep."   Williams, 553 U.S. at 292.  It prohibits a wide swath of expressive conduct in order to protect against a narrow category of public disturbances.  

There are dissents, linked here and here.

In its examples, the court fails to note the expressive value of honking at someone who cuts you off in traffic. (Mike Frisch)

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