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Spin Control: Honking, chickens get solemn deliberation

When you pass the Occupy Spokane protesters or any other demonstrators at any location, you might honk and wave to show support. Or you might honk and wave just one finger to show the opposite.

When you’re waiting with the motor running for a friend or spouse who is dallying inside, you might honk to get them to move it.

When you drive past another vehicle with a bumper sticker that urges you to honk if you love Jesus or the Zags or any number of other potential objects of affection, you might honk if so moved.

In all cases, you are exercising your First Amendment rights. At least in Washington state.

That’s what the state Supreme Court said last week in the somewhat interesting, somewhat bizarre case of State v. Helen Immelt, a Snohomish County woman who was ticketed for honking her horn in anger at her neighbor in 2006, in a dispute over chickens.

Immelt lived in a cul-de-sac that was part of a homeowners association, although she reportedly was unaware of the association’s covenants that banned the raising of chickens. She had some chicks in her garage; her neighbor, the association president, saw them and the group sent her a letter to get rid of the birds.

She figured out the neighbor was the one who turned her in, and the next morning drove by his house around 6 a.m. and blew her horn for a period of time described in court papers as five to 10 minutes. The honked-off neighbor called the sheriff’s office, which sent out a deputy to take the complaint and happened to be there when Immelt drove by again, and honked three times more. He gave chase, pulled her over and gave her a ticket for violating the county’s noise ordinance, which bans “noise which is a public disturbance” including “sounding of vehicle horns for purposes other than public safety.”

She fought the ticket, lost at trial, was fined and given a mostly suspended sentence. She appealed and lost. She took it to the state Supremes, who agreed to hear the case and in a 6-3 split Thursday, sided with her.

The Snohomish County ordinance is overly broad by banning honking for everything but public safety, the majority said in its 12-page opinion. There are many times when honking is conveying a particular message and is thus legitimate free speech. “Examples might include: a driver of a carpool vehicle who toots a horn to let a co-worker 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 majority opinion, written by Justice Debra Stephens, said.

The court didn’t say that Immelt’s horn-honking to get back at her neighbor for the chicken dispute was protected free speech. Didn’t have to, the majority said, because the ordinance on its face was too broad.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen disagreed, saying that Immelt’s honking “was not sufficiently imbued with communicative elements to raise any First Amendment issues” and laid out her arguments in a 19-page dissent.

Another 14-page dissent was written by Justice Jim Johnson. But majority rules, so Immelt’s conviction was erased, her fine returned and costs covered. She has long since moved out of the house.

This seems a true example of what a great country we live in. Even a neighborhood dispute over chickens can rise to a question of constitutional law, occupying the state’s highest court and about 45 pages of detailed legal reasoning.

Feel free to honk if you agree.

Yard sign alert

Every year at this time, Spin Control offers some free advice to the thousands of people who have campaign yard signs for their favorite candidate or ballot issue: Put your coffee cup down, go out, pull them out of the ground and put them in the garage, basement or at least the backyard.

Tomorrow is Halloween. Campaign signs make too-tempting targets. If they get stolen, knocked down, ripped or spray painted, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Well, you could blame the miscreants who did it, but finding them will be about as easy as finding anyone with sympathy for your plight.

Save yourself some grief, and put them back out on Tuesday.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items at spincontrol.