A lawyer in Florida is making a big issue out of what would ordinarily be a minor annoyance: he was driving to work, and he got ticketed for playing music (Justin Timberlake, in case you were wondering) from his car stereo too loud.
Now, most people would simply pay the (very small, at $73.50) fine, and move on with their lives. But this guy was a lawyer, and has apparently decided that the state of Florida will have to pry his pop music from his cold, dead hands.
He went to court to challenge the ticket. Now, many people challenge tickets for minor traffic violations and related infractions, usually on the grounds that the state can’t prove that they engaged in the conduct they’re accused of. This lawyer, however, is arguing that the very law he was ticketed under is unconstitutional.
The Florida statute makes it an infraction for anyone to play music in their car that’s “plainly audible” at 25 feet or more. The lawyer is arguing that this is an infringement upon his First Amendment right to freedom of expression, and a violation of his right to due process because the law is unconstitutionally vague.
Now, I’m a very strong believer in free speech. When the Supreme Court ruled that Westboro Baptist Church had a right to protest the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I reluctantly agreed with the ruling (though I found the conduct of the protesters absolutely repulsive). However, I’m not sure that the right to freedom of speech carries with it a right to make meaningless noise in a manner that seriously disturbs the peace.
After all, free speech generally means the freedom to convey information, or express ideas. Making noise just for the purpose of making noise probably doesn’t count. That’s part of the reason why noise ordinances and laws against disturbing the peace are constitutional.
In this case, the lawyer was playing his music really loud. This blurs the line between noise and expression. However, I think we should err on the side of allowing free expression, and any law that restricts it should be narrowly tailored and as clear as possible, to minimize its impact on speech which is clearly protected by the constitution.
In this case, the law that the lawyer was ticketed under is pretty vague. Furthermore, the statute has an exception for amplified advertisements or political speech. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that commercial speech (like advertisements) is subject to weaker constitutional protection than other speech. So, any statute which provides more protection to commercial speech than to other forms of constitutionally-protected speech is a major constitutional no-no.
If the Florida Supreme Court ends up overturning this statute, I predict that a lot of pundits will deride it as another example of judicial activism, and the success of another frivolous lawsuit. The fact that the plaintiff is a lawyer will just make it an even juicier target.
This is unfortunate, because I think that this case is far from frivolous. It may seem trivial, but it only takes a trivial violation of a constitutional right to snowball into something more significant. While the actions of this lawyer may seem silly when viewed on their own, it is cases like this that prevent little restrictions of speech from accumulating into big ones.
And it’s not like the lawyer is even arguing that all noise regulations are unconstitutional. That’s not the position I’m taking, either. He’s simply making the valid point that this one happens to be vague and overbroad. If it’s overturned, the state legislature, if it wants to enact a new noise ordinance that’s constitutional, will have to actually put some thought into it this time.
This constitutional violation, like most of them, was probably not the result of a deliberate attempt on the part of the state legislature to deprive citizens of their right to free speech. Instead, it’s simply the result of poor drafting, resulting in a statute that’s so vague that no reasonable person can be sure when they’re violating it and when they’re not, making it unconstitutional.
Ordered liberty requires laws that are clear and well thought out. Sometimes, the only way to ensure that that happens is to have a few sloppily-written laws overturned by the courts.