Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Horn-blowing law survives First Amendment challenge

Image by allispossible.org.uk CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A citation for unreasonable horn-blowing is not defective under the First Amendment, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held in February.

The appellant sought relief from a civil motor vehicle infraction carrying a $55 fine. The court set out the facts:

On October 16, 2017, police officers were working as part of a detail as a construction site was being set up at an intersection at the Middlesex Turnpike, "a busy public way in Burlington." This was "causing major traffic delays." [Appellant] pulled into the intersection, "grew impatient," honked his vehicle's horn, and yelled at the officers. "This startled construction workers." [Appellant] drove closer to one of the police officers, honked his vehicle's horn, and insulted the officer. The officer stopped [appellant] and issued him a citation for fifty-five dollars for unnecessarily honking his horn.

The pertinent Massachusetts statute declares: "No person operating a motor vehicle shall sound a bell, horn or other device, nor in any manner operate such motor vehicle so as to make a harsh, objectionable or unreasonable noise." The appellant challenged the statute as unconstitutionally vague and unconstitutionally overbroad facially and as applied.

In First Amendment vagueness analysis, the court explained, a statutory text may be informed by "reasonable construction." And this statute is informed, the court reasoned, by the administrative guidance of the Massachusetts Driver's Manual, a document publication of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The manual specifies:

Use your horn to:

  • Warn pedestrians or other drivers of possible trouble
  • Avoid crashes

Do not use your horn to:

  • Show anger or complain about other drivers’ mistakes
  • Try to get a slower driver to move faster
  • Try to get other vehicles moving in a traffic jam

That guidance "comports with the common understanding of what uses of motor vehicle horns are objectionable," the court wrote, so "is not unconstitutionally vague."

The statute also was not substantially overbroad, facially or as applied, the court concluded.

The appellant looked to court decisions in Washington and Oregon striking laws against horn blowing as facially overbroad. But those laws were broader and swept into their prohibitions the use of horns for purposes unrelated to traffic, namely, expressive use in protests. The Massachusetts law pertains only in traffic scenarios.

The court rejected what it characterized as the appellant's after-the-fact effort to characterize his horn-blowing as a protest against police to articulate an as-applied overbreadth challenge. "Horn honking may be expressive when used as a form of protected protest," the court acknowledged. But that's not the same as appellant "honk[ing] his vehicle's horn out of impatience to show his anger at the police officer for creating a traffic jam."

Fine line, but I know it because I see it.

The case is Burlington Police Department v. Hagopian, No. 20-P-1371 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 22, 2022). Justice Joseph M. Ditkoff wrote the unanimous opinion of the panel.

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