Honking horn not constitutionally protected
As free-speech cases go, Monday's ruling against Helen Immelt may not qualify as a landmark, but it does clear up one question: The prolonged...
Seattle Times staff reporter
As free-speech cases go, Monday's ruling against Helen Immelt may not qualify as a landmark, but it does clear up one question: The prolonged honking of your car's horn in front of your neighbor's house in the wee hours of the morning isn't a constitutionally protected First Amendment right.
But if it's not a free-speech landmark, it may be one in neighbor feuds: The honking was in retaliation for the neighbor's complaint about Immelt's chickens.
And it may also qualify for sheer quixotic determination. For the noise violation in 2006, Immelt went through and lost a three-day jury trial, then appealed the case to the Washington Court of Appeals, representing herself. In his opinion, Justice C. Kenneth Grosse interpreted the words of the Founding Fathers thusly: "Horn honking per se is not free speech."
Here are the details, according to court documents:
Immelt, 52, got a letter from her neighborhood homeowners association in Monroe in 2006, telling her that covenants prohibited the chickens she'd been keeping in her yard. And it literally made her honking mad.
She confronted one neighbor, who called the cops because of Immelt's "accusations, threats and demeanor." Then, Immelt confronted the association's president and the ensuing shouting match drew some other neighbors.
One of them, John Vorderbrueggen, fessed up that he'd had the beef with her chickens.
So, at 5:50 the next morning, Immelt parked in front of Vorderbrueggen's house and leaned on her car's horn for about 10 minutes.
Vorderbrueggen recognized her car and called 911. She drove away and then returned, waving to him as she passed by, then phoned him and said she wanted to make sure he had his 6 a.m. wake-up call.
Then she returned for a second round of honking at 8 a.m., waking up neighborhood-association president Jeremy Brumbaugh, who also recognized her.
When a police sergeant dropped by Immelt's house to ask her to lay off the horn, she "became heated," first claiming her horn didn't work, then claiming it went off by itself, then refusing to show him when he asked to test it. The officer told Immelt that he'd have to arrest her if she kept it up, and then he went to get a statement from Vorderbrueggen.
At which time Immelt drove past and let fly with "three long blasts" of her car horn. The officer fulfilled his promise and Vorderbrueggen said he next saw her cuffed in the back of the police car.
Fast-forward to the appeal. Immelt argued the noise ordinance was "vague, overbroad and interfered with her right to free speech" — and thus unconstitutional.
Nude dancing isn't protected free speech but flag burning is. So maybe there was some wiggle room for honking.
To sum up the appeals court's opinion: Nope.
The honking would need to "have the intent to convey a particularized message in circumstances where it is likely that the message would be understood."
But in a way, Immelt's message was loud and clear, which is why Grosse wrote, "Horn honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech."
Immelt couldn't be reached for comment.
Vorderbrueggen, 39 — who no longer lives in the neighborhood for personal reasons unrelated to the honking — said he was glad about the ruling, "because if courts start ruling that blowing a horn at 6 a.m. on a Saturday is constitutionally protected free speech, then we're headed toward chaos a lot faster than we already are."
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published June 9, 2009, was corrected June 9, 2009. A previous version of this story misidentified the judge who wrote the court decision. The decision was written by Washington Court of Appeals Justice C. Kenneth Grosse.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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