Make Your Voice Heard: Ninth Circuit Blasts Local Restriction on Bullhorn Use
December 17, 2019 by Lorrie BradleyThe Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked enforcement of a local ordinance that restricted the use of a bullhorn at protests. (Cuviello v. City of Vallejo (Dec. 12, 2019).)
In this case, an animal rights protester wished to use a bullhorn outside the Six Flags Discovery Park in Vallejo to protest the alleged mistreatment of animals in the park. After using a bullhorn at several protests, he was warned by local police that the use of a device to amplify sound without a permit violated a city ordinance. The protestor challenged this restriction as a violation of his right to freedom of speech under the United States and California Constitutions.
The appeals court struck down the city ordinance as overbroad. Although the city has a significant interest in preventing noise disturbances that could threaten public health, safety, or welfare, the court noted, the ordinance was not “narrowly tailored” to further that interest. It requires a permit for any use of a sound-amplifying device at any volume by any person at any location – without any specifications or limitations that may tailor the permit requirement to situations involving the most serious risk to public peace or traffic safety. The court concluded that without any limitations that tailor the permit requirement to circumstances where public peace and traffic safety are actually at risk, the ordinance unlawfully covers substantially more speech than necessary to achieve its ends. This decision is in keeping with the general principal favoring restrictions on speech that directly address unwanted behavior (such as noise or traffic congestion) rather than requiring that all potential speakers inform the government (by requesting a permit) before speaking.
This same logic would apply to union picket lines and other demonstrations in cities and towns that have similar regulations regarding amplified sound. Union members should not have to apply for a permit simply to use a bullhorn at a picket line or other action. It is important to note that the court here dealt with a challenge to a permit requirement and not a local law restricting the volume or time and place where protesters can use amplified sound.
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