No Right to Honk, Judge Tells Chicken Lady

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In a landmark First Amendment decision that will disappoint drivers everywhere, the Washington Court of Appeals has ruled that honking a car horn is not necessarily protected speech.

As you might expect, the case arose from a dispute about chickens.

Helen Immelt, of Monroe, Washington, got a letter one day from her homeowners' association informing her that neighborhood rules prohibited her from keeping chickens in her yard.  This infuriated Immelt, who stormed over to a neighbor's house and accused him of reporting her.  According to court documents, the neighbor called the police after becoming concerned by Immelt's "accusations, threats and demeanor."  At some point, other neighbors also showed up, and one of the latter unwisely confessed that he had been the one to complain.

At 5:50 the next morning, the honking began.

Honk The neighbor called 911 to report that Immelt was parked in front of his house, leaning on the car horn, which she did continuously for about ten minutes.  She then drove away, but soon drove back by the house, "waving to him as she passed by."  Immelt later called the man and said she wanted to make sure he had gotten his "6 a.m. wake-up call."  Another honking session took place two hours later.

Police arrived to ask Immelt to cut it out.  Becoming "heated," she allegedly told police that her horn didn't even work (though witnesses had seen and heard her honking it), but soon changed her story to a claim that the horn went off by itself.  These stories could be reconciled, let's say if the car has an electrical problem that causes the horn to "not work" correctly by self-honking for extended periods of time while also immobilizing the car in front of the house of a person she hates.  Or she might have made this up.

Apparently not buying the defective-horn story, the officer told Immelt that he would arrest her if the honking continued and then went over to get a statement from the neighbor.  As he was doing that, Immelt allegedly drove by the house and unleashed three long horn blasts.  Arrest followed.

Immelt was charged with violating a noise ordinance, and felt strongly enough about the matter that she took the case to trial.  She lost.  She then appealed, arguing that the ordinance was vague and overbroad and so her First Amendment rights had been infringed.  A good try, but the court ruled otherwise.

"Horn honking per se," it held, "is not speech," and so not protected.  But there is some hope for those of us who prefer to express ourselves by car horn.  Honking might qualify as speech, the court said, if the honker has "the intent to convey a particularized message in circumstances where it is likely the message would be understood."  (Or maybe if you honk in Morse code?)  The court held, however, that "horn honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech."  I still think this means that the "particularized message" I intend to convey when somebody cuts me off on the highway might just be protected speech, but this seems like an awfully fine line.

That message, of course, is: "Pardon me, sir, but I wish to alert you to the fact that your sudden maneuver has resulted in an inadequate and unsafe distance of separation between our two vehicles.  I have tootled at you due to my belief that the problem is due to inadvertence, not any lack of courtesy on your part.  Thank you for your attention to this matter.  Asshole."

The neighbor who was honked at said he thought the ruling was the right one for society.  "If courts start ruling that blowing a horn at 6 a.m. on a Saturday is constitutionally protected free speech," he warned, "then we're headed toward chaos a lot faster than we already are."

Link: Seattle Times