DETROIT -- A U.S. district judge ruled Thursday that the city of Ferndale violated the First Amendment right to free speech when it punished anti-war protesters on Woodward and drivers who honked to support them.
District Judge Denise Page Hood, who read her opinion from her Detroit bench, said the city failed to show the honking was excessive or posed a safety hazard. Most importantly, the honks' "message of peace" -- just as that of the protesters -- is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"For Ferndale to now claim that a honk is simply a honk is disingenuous," she said.
Nancy Goedert, a 74-year-old Ferndale resident and member of the activist group Raging Grannies, was delighted with the ruling and said she would return to Woodward and Nine Mile, where an anti-war vigil has been held every Monday since 2002. She was ticketed in June for holding a sign that read "HONK FOR PEACE."
"This time we won't have to put the little line on top that says, 'Ferndale cops say don't,'" she said.
The ruling is significant because Ferndale is the first city in Michigan to prosecute car honking in support of a demonstration, said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which filed the lawsuit against the city in April on behalf of five protesters and motorists.
"We believe that with this opinion, it will be the last," he said. "Honking is a time-honored means of political expression in Michigan."
After the ACLU intervened, the city dropped the charges.
In the summer of 2006, Ferndale began ticketing or arresting protesters for disturbing the peace. City police also ticketed a honking motorist, saying a city ordinance and state law limits motorists to honking only to warn others of danger.
City Attorney Dan Christ said Ferndale will await the judge's written opinion, expected within days, before deciding what to do next. In the meantime, city authorities will not interfere with the protests, he said.
"Certainly the city is not going to do anything against the court's ruling," Christ said.
Another court date will be scheduled, when the judge could award the plaintiffs nominal damages and attorney fees.
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© 2008 The Detroit News