Blaring car horn not free speech, Washington judge rules

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 | 8:11 p.m. CDT

EVERETT, Wash. — Being honked off doesn't give you a right to honk on, a Snohomish County Superior Court judge ruled in the case of a woman who expressed her anger at a neighbor by leaning on her car horn at about 6 a.m.

Helen Immelt, 52, of Monroe, got in a dispute with the neighbor in 2006 after she learned that he had filed a complaint with their homeowners association about her chickens. Per the association's covenants, chickens weren't allowed.

She responded by parking her car in front of his house at 5:50 a.m. the next day and leaning on her horn for 10 minutes straight. After he called the police, she returned for a second round of honking two hours later.

Immelt was arrested, cited for a noise violation and convicted at a three-day jury trial in district court. She appealed her conviction to the superior court, arguing the noise ordinance was "vague, overbroad and interfered with her right to free speech."

Judge Richard J. Thorpe disagreed in his ruling Monday.

The honking would need to "have the intent to convey a particularized message in circumstances where it is likely that the message would be understood," the ruling said.

"Horn honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech," the judge added.

The neighbor, John Vorderbrueggen, moved away some time ago for reasons unrelated to the fowl feud. But the 39-year-old told The Seattle Times he appreciated the judge's decision.

"If courts start ruling that blowing a horn at 6 a.m. on a Saturday is constitutionally protected free speech, then we're headed toward chaos a lot faster than we already are," he said.


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