The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to hear Helen Immelt’s claim that the city of Everett violated her First Amendment rights when it convicted her of excessive honking. As I noted this summer, the state court of appeal ruled against Immelt in June, holding that “horn honking per se” is not protected speech if it is done to annoy or harass others. It did hold out the possibility, though, of a different result if a honker had “the intent to convey a particularized message in circumstances where it is likely the message would be understood.”
Ever since then, I have been trying to think of a circumstance where I might intend to convey a particularized message with my car horn that would not also be intended to annoy or harass others. Granted, a honk is usually intended to communicate by signaling the presence of one’s vehicle to another person, like another driver, an elderly person crossing the street, or a prostitute, but it is hard to see how a mere signal of that kind could really be considered a form of free expression. As I suggested last time, any more particularized message sent with a car horn is almost certainly going to be one specifically intended to annoy or harass, unless people start going around honking out messages in Morse code. But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.
Immelt was not using Morse code, unless “three long blasts” is the code for “I continue to protest my neighbor’s complaint to the homeowners’ association about the chickens I keep in my yard, a rule that I believe is overbroad and unfair, and furthermore I think calling the sheriff about my previous early-morning honking is an oppressive act.” (It turns out to actually be the letter “O.”) She has suggested, though, that she was expressing herself just as one would if, for example, one was honking in support of U.S. troops. That would require a third party, I think, holding up a sign with which you might honk in agreement, thus piggybacking yourself onto that person’s free-speech rights. That is not a bad argument. Unfortunately for Ms. Immelt, it appears to have nothing to do with her case.
County prosecutor Charles Blackman said he was not surprised that the court had taken the case, because of the importance of First Amendment rights. He will represent the county before the Washington Supreme Court. Helen Immelt will continue to represent herself.