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Published: Tuesday, June 8, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

State's high court to decide if honking horn is protected speech

Case of woman arrested for honking goes to state Supreme Court today

OLYMPIA — The state’s highest court is expected to settle a dispute over horn-honking and free speech that began as a squabble over noisy chickens in a Monroe cul-de-sac.
A Lynnwood lawyer is scheduled to face off against a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor this afternoon in Olympia in front of the state Supreme Court justices.
At the heart of the dispute is a county noise ordinance that limits horn honking.
One issue is whether honking is a form of self-expression protected by the First Amendment. County rules say horn-honking is a public disturbance unless the honking is being done for public safety purposes.
A former Monroe woman argues that the county violated her First Amendment rights when she was arrested for honking her horn outside her neighbor’s house. She wants Supreme Court justices to throw out her 2006 misdemeanor conviction for breaking the ordinance.
Helen Immelt laid on her horn on a Saturday morning outside a Monroe man’s house after she received a letter from her homeowners association ordering her to stop raising chickens in her back yard. The man was the association’s president.
A Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant testified that he warned Immelt not to honk her horn again. He arrested her a short time later after hearing three long blasts. A neighbor testified that Immelt honked her horn at him after he blew her a kiss.
Immelt told police the man made a vulgar gesture at her.
Two violations of the county’s ordinance within 24 hours can lead to a criminal citation.
Immelt was sentenced to 10 days in jail after a trial in Evergreen District Court. Last summer, the state Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, saying the First Amendment didn’t give Immelt the right to honk her car horn outside her neighbor’s home.
“Horn-honking per se is not free speech,” Justice C. Kenneth Grosse wrote in the opinion. “Horn-honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech.”
Unhappy with the court’s decision, Immelt asked the state Supreme Court to review the case.
Until now, Immelt has represented herself in court. Today she will have an attorney.
“Everyone knows honking is speech. Whether the horn is used to warn another driver, express frustration, or make a statement, it is used solely for communication,” attorney John Tollefsen wrote in a brief to the court.
People honk their car horns in support of U.S. military troops or to support a labor union on strike. Horns have been used to express opinions through the ages, Tollefsen said.
The county should not be allowed to limit horn-honking solely to public safety purposes, he said.
People have a right to express themselves as long as it doesn’t present a clear and present danger to others, he said.
Under the ordinance, the lawyer argues that he wouldn’t be able to honk at his dog if the animal blocked the driveway because it wouldn’t be seen as public safety issue.
The ordinance is too broad and too vague, Tollefsen said.
Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Charles Blackman argued that Immelt’s horn honking is not speech. She was using her horn to vex her neighbors.
The state Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that under the circumstances Immelt wasn’t conveying a readily understandable message.
“The defendant wants to talk about horn-honking at a political rally, but that’s not what she did,” Blackman said. “She blew her horn for over five minutes at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. She was warned not to do it, and then did it again.”
The county ordinance doesn’t ban all horn-honking, he added.
“A society ought to be able to protect its citizens from noise harassment,” Blackman said. “We will argue it can do so without infringing on free speech.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

Follow along
You can watch arguments in the case starting at 1:30 p.m. at www.tvw.org.
Story tags » MonroeTrialsState Supreme Court

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