Monroe woman’s horn honking not free speech, court says

MONROE — A neighborhood flap over chickens that landed a former Monroe woman behind bars has sparked a debate about horn honking, Snohomish County’s noise rules and the First Amendment.

The dispute, first heard in a district court in Monroe in 2006, reached the state Court of Appeals.

The court weighed in on the argument earlier this week, ultimately ruling that the First Amendment didn’t give Helen Immelt the right to lay on her car horn for 10 minutes on a Saturday morning in front of a neighbor’s house.

The court said that was the law, even if Immelt was ticked off at the man for complaining about the chickens roosting in her back yard.

“Horn honking per se is not free speech,” Justice C. Kenneth Grosse wrote in the recent opinion. “Horn honking which is done to annoy or harass others is not speech.”

Immelt in an e-mail to The Herald said she was dumbfounded by the decision.

She hasn’t decided if she’ll ask the court to reconsider or ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.

Immelt, who represented herself, has argued that the county’s noise ordinance is too broad and vague and tramples on her right to free speech. She contended she was honking her horn to express herself, like someone honking in celebration after a wedding or in support of a sports team.

The county ordinance names horn honking as a public disturbance unless the horn is used for public safety purposes. Two violations within 24 hours can lead to a criminal citation.

That’s what happened to Immelt.

The hubbub began when Immelt received a letter from the homeowner’s association. Her neighbor John Vorderbrueggen complained to the association about Immelt’s chickens. Immelt was advised to get rid of the fowl.

Immelt was unhappy with the letter. She confronted Jeremy Brumbaugh, then the association’s president. The shouting match attracted other neighbors, including Vorderbrueggen, who admitted he complained about the backyard birds.

The next morning Immelt parked in front of Vorderbrueggen’s house and laid on the horn. Vorderbrueggen called 911.

Brumbaugh remembers the honking. It was just about 6 a.m. when he heard a horn blaring from the street.

“I could see how a car horn could be speech,” he said. “There’s a friendly honk and there’s laying on the horn. But when someone lays on her horn at 6 a.m. — I don’t see that as free speech.”

A Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant arrived an hour later. He warned Immelt not to honk at her neighbors.

Immelt told the officer her car horn didn’t work but declined to prove it. The sergeant warned Immelt if she continued to blow her horn, he’d arrest her.

The officer returned to Vorderbrueggen’s house to collect a statement. He saw Immelt pull out of her driveway and heard three long blasts. He stopped her car. Immelt told the officer she was responding to a neighbor giving her a vulgar gesture.

She was arrested.

A jury convicted Immelt of a misdemeanor after a three-day trial in Evergreen District Court. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail. The sentence was stayed while she appealed her conviction in Snohomish County Superior Court. The court upheld the lower court’s decision.

Immelt went to the state Court of Appeals.

She argued that the county ordinance essentially criminalizes all horn honking, except for purposes other than public safety, a term that is too vague, she said.

“Honking in support of our troops in Iraq would be unlawful. Honking in protest of the Iraq war would be unlawful. The honking of a horn at a parade would be unlawful,” she wrote in her appeal. “Responding to ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ bumper sticker would be criminal, running afoul of two separate First Amendment protections.”

The state Court of Appeals agreed to take up the free speech argument.

“It wasn’t a stupid issue,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Charles Blackman said. “It was a real issue the Court of Appeals believed was worthy to analyze.”

Blackman defended the county’s noise ordinance during the appeals.

The particulars of the incident, however, didn’t support Immelt’s claims, he said.

“A rock through a window or a punch in the nose are, broadly viewed, forms of expression too, but that does not make either constitutionally protected speech,” Blackman wrote in court documents. “The defendant simply wanted to harm and retaliate against her neighbors.”

The state Court of Appeals opined that under the circumstances the horn honking wasn’t conveying a readily understandable message.

Immelt didn’t honk at the homeowner president, the person who sent the letter, Grosse wrote. She also offered different explanations to the officer for the noise, including denying that she honked her horn.

Immelt said the court ignored her key argument — that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it ultimately bans horn honking, even if it’s protected speech.

Blackman says he doesn’t think the ruling should leave the impression that all horn honking is banned.

“I don’t see this decision at all as a slippery slope,” he said. “I don’t think the matter is murky and we don’t know when we can and can’t honk.”

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

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