Soundtrucks and Amplifiers

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When the Framers of the first amendment wrote a ban on laws "abridging" freedom of speech into the Constitution, the range of the human voice was relatively limited. The invention of electronic sound amplification equipment in the twentieth century potentially extended that range even into distant buildings and behind locked doors. Loudspeakers and bullhorns, whether stationary or mobile, present a particular problem of speech regulation: to what extent does the right to speak override the expectation of peace and privacy enjoyed by members of the public? Especially troubling are soundtrucks, amplifier-equipped motor vehicles that blare political slogans or advertising messages while roving the streets of residential neighborhoods.

The problem of soundtrucks and amplifiers was addressed by the Supreme Court in two famous cases. In Saia v. New York (1948) a 5–4 Court struck down a city ordinance requiring permission of the chief of police before a soundtruck could be used within the city limits. The ordinance provided no standard for the police chief to apply in granting or withholding permission. Eight months later, in kovacs v. cooper (1949), a five-Justice majority (including the Saia dissenters) upheld an ordinance prohibiting the operation within a city of soundtrucks that emitted "loud or raucous noises." The plurality thought the "loud and raucous" test an adequate standard of regulation, while two concurring Justices understood the ordinance as a ban on all soundtrucks.

The danger of public regulation of amplified speech is that restrictions ostensibly directed to the time, place, and manner of speaking will be used as a pretext for controlling the content of speech. But, as technology makes the outside world ever more intrusive into the realm of individual privacy, the right of the people to provide themselves freedom from loud and raucous utterance, whatever its content, can only become more valuable.

Dennis J. Mahoney