Honk If You Love Litigation

Published November 16, 2011

Charges against a Washington state woman for illegally honking her car horn have been dropped after the state supreme court ruled the horn-honking law unconstitutional.

The woman lives in Snohomish County in northwestern Washington, where the county code bans “sound that is a public disturbance noise.” This is defined to include “[t]he sounding of vehicle horns for purposes other than public safety.”

It turns out the woman had irked her neighbor by keeping chickens on her land in violation of a restrictive covenant. The neighbor ratted her out to the local homeowners’ association, which notified her of the violation. The woman retaliated against her neighbor by parking in front of his house and honking the horn for between five and ten minutes at 6 a.m.

She was charged with violating the horn-honking law. She defended the charge by asserting the law violates her right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

The Washington Supreme Court agreed, holding horn-honking can be protected by the First Amendment.

“Conduct such as horn honking may rise to the level of speech when the actor intends to communicate a message and the message can be understood in context,” the court ruled. “A moment’s reflection brings to mind numerous occasions in which a person honking a vehicle horn will be engaging in speech intended to communicate a message that will be understood in context.”

“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,” the court said. “Thus, we reject the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that horn honking is a type of conduct that does not involve speech. Horn honking does constitute protected speech in many instances,” the court found.

Source: State v. Immelt, No. 83343-5, October 27, 2011, Washington Supreme Court