Blast it! ACLU protects teeth-rattling car music

Robert Knight Senior Fellow, American Civil Rights Union
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In its long history of empowering nuisances that shatter civility, the ACLU has chalked up another victory.

This time, it’s a statewide noise abatement law in Florida aimed at the rolling boom boxes whose subwoofers give unwary bystanders an overall massage, often accompanied by obscenities.

As the Tampa Tribune’s Keith Morelli neatly summarizes:

“The throbbing, molar-rattling bass punctuated with profanity laced lyrics coming from the car in front of you carries the same weight as a political candidate driving down the street asking for votes with a bullhorn.”

That’s pretty much what the ACLU argued in an amicus brief and what the Sixth Judicial Circuit for Pinellas Country decided in striking down the law, which curbs car music loud enough to be heard 25 feet away.

ACLU attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen, who filed the brief on behalf of Richard Catalano of Clearwater, a lawyer who likes to blast his stereo, said of the state, “If they were trying to prevent the nuisance of noise, there is no difference in loud music and political speech.”

Catalano was pulled over in 2007 in St. Petersburg for playing music so loud that a cop felt justified in ticketing him even though his windows were up.

“I listen to everything,” Catalano told the Tampa Tribune. “I like Billy Joel and Marilyn Manson; Lady Gaga, for cripes sakes. I’m a 50-year-old corporate attorney and I just happen to like loud music. I like it; I paid for it and I’m going to play it.”

And if you don’t like it, stay off the sidewalk next to Mr. Catalano’s car or perhaps in the gas station when he fills up his tank.

Attorneys for Catalano and fellow music blaster Alexander Schermerhorn, whose cases were combined, said the law was “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, invites arbitrary enforcement, and impinges on free speech rights.” The court agreed, saying that the “plainly audible” standard is too vague.

In 2009, the ACLU’s Mogensen joined other ACLU attorneys represented plaintiffs in a similar case in Sarasota, Florida. In July 2010, the 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Sarasota County awarded $50,000 to two plaintiffs and struck down Sarasota’s anti-noise law because it allowed police to impound violators’ vehicles.

“Sarasota’s noise ordinance, with its draconian penalties, violated fundamental First Amendment principles. The resolution of this case, including the suspended enforcement of the ordinance, ensures that the rights of Sarasota residents and visitors are protected,” said Muslima Lewis, ACLU of Florida Senior Attorney and Racial Justice Project Director, in an ACLU press release.

So, the next time you’re sitting in your car or sitting on a park bench, at least in Florida, and hear dirty words and epithets at volumes that would shake an elephant, thank the ACLU.

Robert Knight is a Senior Fellow for the American Civil Rights Union (www.theacru.org).