Horn-honking ruling highlights overbreadth doctrine

Last week’s Washington Supreme Court decision striking down a county noise ordinance that prohibits the honking of car horns for purposes other than public safety highlights the importance of the overbreadth doctrine in First Amendment law.

The Snohomish County code prohibits “sound that is a public disturbance,” including “the sounding of vehicle horns for purposes other than public safety.” In 2006, Helen Immelt honked her vehicle horn in front of her neighbor’s house for 5 to 10 minutes at about 6 a.m. after learning that her neighbor had told their homeowners’ association that Immelt was raising chickens in violation of a covenant.

A police officer arrested Immelt after she honked her horn again in front of the neighbor’s house while the officer was taking the neighbor’s statement. A jury convicted her of violating the noise ordinance and the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

On appeal, Immelt continued her argument that the ordinance was overbroad in violation of both the First Amendment and a corresponding provision of the Washington State Constitution.

The state high court ruled 6-3 on Oct. 27 in State v. Immelt that the noise ordinance was overbroad. The majority noted that the ordinance did implicate speech when individuals honked their horns to convey messages other than public safety. Writing for the majority, Justice Debra L. Stephens explained:

“Examples might include: a driver of a carpool vehicle who toots a horn to let a coworker know it is time to go, a driver who enthusiastically responds to a sign that says ‘honk if you support our troops,’ wedding guests who celebrate nuptials by sounding their horns, and a motorist who honks a horn in support of an individual picketing on a street corner.”

Stephens wrote that there were many instances where horn honking constituted protected speech even if Immelt’s individual honking was not protected.

The majority recognized that some courts in other jurisdictions had rejected the idea that horn honking constituted protected expression. “We … decline to follow the lead of other jurisdictions that have questioned the expressive value of horn honking,” Stephens wrote. “While it does not involve spoken words, horn honking may be clearly a form of expressive conduct.”

The Washington high court then said that the county’s ordinance banning much horn honking would restrict a substantial amount of protected speech, including “the carpool driver, the wedding guest, the troop supporter, or the individual honking upon passing a picketer on the street corner.”

Stephens concluded that the ordinance “prohibits a wide swath of expressive conduct in order to protect against a narrow category of public disturbances.”

This reasoning exemplifies the spirit behind the overbreadth doctrine — that some laws simply are drafted too broadly and invade the sphere of protected freedoms.

Many laws are passed for a laudable purpose. People don’t want to listen to unnecessary horn honking. In this case, Immelt’s repeated horn honking at 6 a.m. in front of her neighbor’s house was less than ideal communication.

But governments must pass laws that are drafted with precision, not restrictions that are overbroad and ill-defined.

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