Freedom of Speech/Religion Infringed?


One woman in Seminole, Okla., used to walk the sidewalks downtown with this homemade sign. The reverse side said “Please!!! Repent Jesus is Coming” However, she did not make any noise.
(Copyright © 2003 by Wil C. Fry.)

On Facebook, a cousin posted a link to a story about a pastor’s wife “fined for praying too loud (sic)“. The article seemed to have just copied/pasted the news from this actual news site, so I’ll link to it instead of the one that didn’t write it.

To be clear, the authorities in Lisbon, N.D., didn’t fine the woman for praying, or even for praying loudly. They fined her for breaking a standard city ordinance that prohibits “disturbing the peace”. The woman’s explanation, according to the story, was “I can’t stop. I’m trusting God… In the United States it’s one nation under God.”

Police Chief Jeanette Persons responded: “I mean, we all need prayers and great she’s out there praying for all of us, but it’s just the volume of her voice.” The chief went on to explain that the incidents occurred in residential areas, and that complaints were called in. “She is standing outside of their house shouting. It’s not that she just walks by, but she will stand out there for a lengthy period of time.”

I was curious about related case law and did a few searches to see if any similar cases had reached higher courts — I assume at least someone in the past has been very loud, got ticketed, and then sued based on the First Amendment. Sure enough, I found a Florida State Supreme Court ruling from 2012, in which the justices struck down a state law prohibiting loud music from car stereos. Their stance, however, was not that “free speech” means you can be as loud as you want. They said the law was unconstitutional since it was not “content neutral”. It made exceptions for “political speech” and “commercial broadcasts”. If the law had limited the volume of any broadcast, it would have been okay.

But I could not find any cases similar to the one in this story, and so I wonder whether it would gain any traction in higher courts on the basis of the First Amendment.

We all know free speech is limited, despite the First Amendment, by “reasonable” regulations. There’s the old example of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. When the stampede ensues and people are injured, you can be sued, regardless of your freedom of speech. Of course, in this case no one was harmed; it was simply an inconvenience.

And we all know that freedom of religion is limited as well. If you start a religion that demands human sacrifice or requires its adherents to steal from others, no court in the land* would allow it to practice. But again, in this case no one was harmed and nothing was damaged or stolen.

I assume a court would try to balance her freedom to practice her religion against the freedom of others to not be a part of it. None of the stories say whether the complainants belonged to one religion or another, but based on U.S. statistics, it’s safe to assume that at least one of them was also a Christian. If that’s the case, they certainly weren’t asking her to not practice her religion, but to just practice it more quietly.

I haven’t had this experience, but my neighborhood is sometimes filled with noise — including car stereos, modified exhaust systems, or just people who stand on the sidewalk in front of our home talking loudly for no good reason. My wife, who is from New York City, wonders why it bothers me so much.

As for me, I wonder whether anyone has the right to play their music or speak inside my home — because it’s fairly common knowledge that sound waves don’t just float around their source; they travel, and these sound systems were not designed to contain sound, but to spread it.

While there is no specified Constitutional right to expect peace and quiet inside citizens’ homes, I assert that the rarely-mentioned Ninth Amendment covers it: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

I further assert that playing music, or talking, or yes, even praying, outside my home at a volume that can be clearly heard inside my home is the same as actually going into my home without permission to play that music, talk, or pray. It is easily possible to listen to music, talk, play and pray outside, in public spaces, without it being audible inside a reasonably constructed house or apartment.

My contention is that the burden should rest on the person being a jackass, not on the person who has to deal with it. As someone pointed out, I could insulate my home against sound, landscape in such a way as to block the sound, or activate some sound-causing device inside my home to counter the noise. My response is that such would be an unduly heavy — and expensive — burden on me, whereas the person outside could just turn down their volume knob with a slight twist or click of a button.

* Correction, 2015.02.28, 13:09: I was incorrect when I said no court would allow a religion to practice in the U.S. if it demanded human sacrifice. Apparently, it’s been allowed in Idaho for generations. But not in most other places. And the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled (1990) that “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

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