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Free Speech and Honking Your Car Horn. Can you be Arrested?!

When Helen was reported to her homeowners association by a neighbor for violating a restrictive covenant against keeping chickens, she picked a rather odd way of getting even with the neighbor. She had to borrow a friend’s car to do it, but she stopped the car in front of the neighbor’s house at 6 a.m. and laid on the horn for 10 minutes.

The neighbor called the police, who first spoke with Helen and then went to get the neighbor’s statement. Unable to leave well enough alone, Helen then drove past the neighbor’s house and let out three more loud horn blasts for good measure. This promptly led to her arrest by the police officer and her subsequent conviction for violating the local noise ordinance barring the sounding of a horn except for public safety purposes or at officially sanctioned parades or public events.

Helen’s conduct hardly summons up comparisons with grand orations on vital issues of the day, but her conviction was overturned by a state supreme court. More specifically, the county noise ordinance under which she had been arrested was struck down as being impermissibly overbroad, in violation of free speech protections of the federal and state constitutions, because horn honking could clearly be a form of expressive conduct in certain circumstances and the ordinance sweptinto its prohibition many such instances of “protected honking.”

The court stated that the facts of the case were not critical in an overbreadth challenge. The larger principle was that there was a realistic danger that the ordinance would significantly compromise recognized free speech rights of parties not even before the court. Horn honking as a way to vent anger about a rather petty dispute between neighbors may not ring true as speech worthy of protection, but the court advanced some other, more plausible scenarios of honking as protected speech: a driver for a carpool toots the horn to let another worker know it is time to go; a driver responds to a sign saying “ honk if you support our troops” ; wedding guests celebrate the newlyweds’ departure from the church with their car horns; or a driver honks in support of an individual picketing on a street corner.

Because these actions were swept within the ordinance’s prohibition, as well as any other forms of car horn honking that did not involve public safety or an officially sanctioned parade or public event, the ordinance and Helen’s conviction could not stand. The court suggested that a properly tailored ordinance, prohibiting, say, disturbing horn honking that is meant to annoy or harass, might have survived, but that was not the ordinance that led to Helen’s arrest. In short, you might say that Helen had the last “honk” after all.

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