Berrien County Court Drops Criminal Charges Against Honking Protesters

December 13, 2012

Benton Harbor, Mich. – In a victory for free speech, a Berrien County judge has ordered all criminal charges dropped against three individuals who were ticketed for violating a Benton Harbor noise ordinance when they tooted horns during a peaceful demonstration against Public Act 4, the emergency manager law.

On May 26, 2012, during the Senior PGA Golf Tournament in Benton Harbor, Chris Lamere, Sean Crawford and Robert Mabbitt participated in a public protest against Public Act 4, the appointment of a financial manager and the taking of public land from Klock Park for the development of the private golf course.

During the protest, Mabbitt and Crawford separately held up a sign with “P.A. 4” crossed out, similar to a no smoking sign. The sign also had a bicycle horn attached to it. After Mabbitt and Crawford tooted the horn on the sign, officers approached each of them and issued citations for violating the city’s noise ordinance.

Lamere was issued a citation after tooting an airhorn during the protest. None of the protesters were issued warnings that tooting the horns would result in a citation. Lamere, Crawford and Mabbitt faced a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail had they been convicted.

In 2007, the ACLU of Michigan addressed a similar issue by challenging the City of Ferndale’s practice of arresting peace protesters who encouraged passing motorists to honk in support and ticketing motorists who honked. A federal judge later agreed with the ACLU, ruling that honking is a form of constitutionally protected speech and a time honored tradition.

The following statement can be attributed to Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney:

“This is a wonderful victory for all people who treasure the guiding principles of the First Amendment. We are delighted that the judge agrees with us that tooting horns during a protest is a time honored tradition that must be protected. This case is further proof that the government should stay out of the speech regulation business. When the government passes overly broad laws, it risks, as in this case, silencing lawful speech. It’s a shame that a cash-strapped city like Benton Harbor would waste limited resources prosecuting peaceful protesters and defending an unconstitutional noise ordinance”

Key News and Documents

Read the court’s decision

Read the protesters’ motion to dismiss.

See a photo of Sean Crawford and his protest sign