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Judge Says Horn Honking Is Not Free Speech: Neighbors' Dispute Leads to Arrest

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 10, 2009 8:57 AM

People who honk their horn gratuitously and/or angrily better watch out because they might not have the First Amendment to fall back on if they get in trouble for it. At least, that's what an appellate court judge in Washington said in the case of Helen Immelt, who got arrested for, essentially, excessive horn honking.

The whole noisy matter started, as is so often the case, with a dispute between neighbors. One of Immelt's neighbors, John Vorderbrueggen, complained to their neighborhood homeowners' association about chickens Immelt was keeping in her yard. It's not clear whether the chickens were making too much noise, or what exactly the problem with the chickens was. But if their noise was actually the problem, Vorderbrueggen ended up bringing on a whole lot more raucous issues onto himself.

The UPI piece described what ensued:

"The following morning just before 6 a.m., Immelt parked her car outside of Vorderbrueggen's house and honked her horn continuously for 10 minutes, authorities said. Vorderbrueggen recognized Immelt's car and called 911. He soon received a call from Immelt to make sure he heard the wake-up call."

Although the laws vary by jurisdiction, honking a horn unnecessarily can get you in trouble in many places. Horns are often considered warning devices and restricting their use can be justified under the reasoning that unnecessary "warnings" can actually create danger for other drivers. However, the likelihood of legal consequences probably goes up astronomically if, like Immelt, one decides to honk away blatantly in front of the police:

"Police said they confronted and warned Immelt about the honking. She was arrested on a noise violation after driving past Vorderbrueggen's house and honking three times while he was giving a statement to police."

Despite Immelt's best efforts to fight it, a jury ruled against her on the noise violation, and an appeals judge in Washington didn't buy her argument that "the horn honking was constitutionally protected free speech." According to the story, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Richard Thorpe said, "Horn honking per se is not free speech...[h]orn honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech." There may be some wiggle room in that language though...perhaps Morse-code honking? Well, it might be better to be safe than sorry and express one's self in other, more traditional ways...

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