Judge rules in favor of free speech

By |2008-02-07T09:00:00-05:00February 7th, 2008|News|

by Sharon Gittleman

}A district court struck down Ferndale’s effort to ticket protestors who gathered on street corners in opposition to the war in Iraq and other political issues.
The court determined that displaying signs encouraging drivers to honk their horns to express their views was speech protected by the Constitution, said Michael Steinberg, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped prosecute the case.
The city was sued after Nancy Goedert, the former Mayor’s mom, and others were ticketed for holding up signs baring the messages.
“It’s a great victory for free speech,” said Steinberg.
Steinberg said Ferndale argued the tickets helped protect public safety.
“The city failed to come up with any evidence that honking presented any danger,” he said. “To our knowledge Ferndale was the first community in the state to charge someone with a crime for encouraging motorists to honk in support of their political protest.”
Honking is a mechanical warning device, not a form of speech, said Ferndale City Attorney Dan Christ.
“The city thought the signs inciting the lawless activity were not protected,” he said.
Christ said the community hasn’t had a chance to review the decision and it was premature to speculate about its response.
Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey did not return several requests for comment about the case.
While he didn’t have an exact figure, Ferndale City Councilmember T. Scott Galloway said the case probably cost Ferndale thousands of dollars to defend.
“In the city in which protestors were granted the most leeway and are made to feel the most welcome, they felt the need to file a lawsuit against us,” he said. “The Motor Vehicle Code of Michigan doesn’t allow you to honk your horn except for traffic reasons. The police department was enforcing it.”
The Ferndale street protests weren’t the only vigils that has attracted Nancy Goedert, a member of the “Raging Grannies” protest group.
“They are my soul sisters,” she said. “We got kicked out of the auto show. We were singing environmental songs.”
She joined the regular Monday peace vigil on Nine Mile and Woodward and got ticketed by a police officer in July 2006, she said.
“They confiscated my sign,” she said. “We talked for a considerable length of time. He said, ‘will you give it me or do I have to drag you away? I was ticketed.'”
Goedert said she decided to call the American Civil Liberties Union to fight the citation.
“The Constitution doesn’t say anything about clearing with police anything you say,” she said. “I went there intending to see this through.”
Goedert wondered why Ferndale decided to enforce the honking ban.
“They say it’s for public safety and because of the noise. There is no documentation that honking has caused accidents,” she said. “This vigil every Monday for five years has heard hundreds of honks. Go stand on Nine Mile and Woodward and you’ll notice it’s not a quiet corner. At 3 a.m. it’s a busy corner with a tremendous volume of traffic.”
Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center Chief Executive Officer Leslie Thompson supports the protestors.
“If it was so horrendous it was disturbing the peace in a sleepy neighborhood at 2 a.m., maybe there would be a problem,” she said. “Next Monday, I’m happily honking. “I’ll give a toot when I drive past.”
Tom Cavalier, an attorney for the plaintiffs said the court’s decision was an important victory for freedom of speech.
“We’re very happy with it,” said Cavalier, who works with Barris, Sott, Denn and Driker in Detroit. “It’s what we were asking the court to rule.”
Steinberg said Ferndale argued that they needed to censor motorists in order to advance public safety.
“Under that theory all billboards could be banned. Anything along the motorways can be banned,” he said. “The courts have said when we’re talking about an activity as critical to us as free speech the government has a heavy burden to prove the censorship will directly advance the interest its asserting – public safety.”
Ferndale has not indicated whether or not it will appeal the decision.
The Ferndale City Council’s next meeting is at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, at City Hall, located at 300 East Nine Mile.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.