Fix overturned Florida law prohibiting deafening music from vehicles

December 21, 2012 

Florida's Legislature botched the creation of a law regarding a perfectly sound public policy, inserting a fatal flaw in the ban on powerful vehicle audio systems that blast music at incredibly high volumes and clearly disturb the peace.

By attaching exceptions, lawmakers left the Florida Supreme Court no choice but to declare the law unconstitutional last week.

While car stereo retailers, system installation shops and fans of deafening music celebrate the demise of the law, the ruling is not a total victory. Local ordinances might hold up in court should they be void of exceptions.

The state statute prohibited drivers from playing music "plainly audible at a distance of 25 feet or more" but it exempted vehicles deployed "for business or political purposes." Those two exceptions compelled the Supreme Court to strike down the statute as a violation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech.

But justices did not comment on the statute's "plainly audible" doctrine, an important piece of this puzzle. That could allow enforcement by cities and counties with noise ordinances that cite that phrase instead of specific decibel levels, a troublesome task that necessitates expensive monitoring devices.

While an earlier ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal declared "plainly audible" too vague and arbitrary, the Supreme Court avoided the issue.

The City of Bradenton quit enforcing its noise ordinance after that lower court ruling but should revisit the matter now.

The Manatee County Sheriff's Office had been issuing occasional citations for violating the now stricken 4-year-old state statute, which authorized law enforcement to write nonmoving traffic citations to drivers whose stereos could be heard 25 feet from their vehicles. That short standard is too restrictive and should be lengthened.

Deafening music cannot be considered an individual's constitutional right while out in public -- not when the health and welfare of other citizens is threatened, with the excessive sound sometimes causing headaches, chronic fatigue and undue stress from both the high amplification and the vibrations. Not only are fellow motorists subjected to high-powered thumping, the music invades homes and businesses, disturbing sleep and commerce.

The Supreme Court indicated the state retains a compelling interest in shielding the public from ear-splitting music. Other types of noise -- like wild parties -- fall under ordinances that have served communities well for decades.

The Legislature should rewrite the law to meet the conditions set by the high court's ruling. Objective standards -- such as a specific decibel level heard at a certain distance -- should eliminate the possibility of another adverse court ruling.

In the meantime, municipalities and counties could adopt disturbing-the-peace ordinances covering extreme music volumes that will also stand up.

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