Saturday, May 21, 2011

Florida court: 'Turn Up the Radio!'

In 1984, one-hit wonders Autograph urged us to "Turn Up the Radio." Earlier this month, a Florida appeals court signaled that the glam rock band likely had the right idea.

Turn Up The RadioIn a ruling that impacts a 14-county area in the Sunshine State, the Second District Court of Appeals decided that a state law designed to muffle car radios is unconstitutional.

And while head bangers are rejoicing, other Floridians are simply banging their heads.

The issue found its way into the courts when police made the mistake of ticketing Richard Catalano for blasting a Justin Timberlake tune from the radio of his Infiniti G35.

Their mistake? Catalano is a St. Petersburg attorney who had no problem devoting 42 months of his life fighting the $73.50 citation in county court, circuit court and the court of appeals. And, he says, he's ready to take his case to the Florida Supreme Court if the appeals court ruling is challenged.

His taste in music aside, Catalano's chances of winning the next round are a lot better than Autograph cracking the Billboard Top 40 again any time soon.

The devil in this one, as always, is in the details. The Florida law - which is modeled after statutes in use throughout the country - contains two landmines.

First, the law says car stereo systems that are "plainly audible" from 25 feet away are illegal. Too vague, the appeals court ruled.

But the fatal flaw in the statute is contained in the exemptions written into the law by the legislature. Advertising messages don't count. And lawmakers reckoned they should give themselves an out by allowing political propaganda to be blared from sound trucks.

It was on this second point, the court ruled, that the statute and the U.S. Constitution collided head-on with the First Amendment. The justices, relying on a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, said the law must be "content-neutral." If advertising and political messages were okay regardless of how many decibels they consumed, everything else gets the green light.

Loud, the court said, is loud. What's contained in that loud doesn't matter.

If Florida's attorney general decides to appeal the ruling, she'll be up against City of Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, Inc. In that 19-year-old case, the nation's high court determined that a "prohibition against the use of sound trucks emitting 'loud and raucous' noise is permissible if it applies equally to music, political speech and advertising."

In other words, "Turn Up the Radio." If you live in Florida, that is.

Catalano says he's ready to rumble. "If they want to go to Tallahassee, I say let's go," he recently told the St. Petersburg Times. Until then, however, anti-noise activists admit they have no choice but to hold their ears. The issue has even gone political.

Punta Gorda resident Joseph Sikora recently noted that "if Tallahassee lawyer Richard Catalano and his liberal friends have their way it will change the noise law for car audio systems." Catalano isn't a Tallahassee lawyer. And, for the moment, he's getting his way. "That's right," the Charlotte County resident continued. "These disrespectful people will be able to blare their music or whatever else they listen too (sic) without getting a ticket."

In St. Pete, where the court ruling has prompted police to stop writing car radio tickets (and where Catalano actually practices law), noise control proponent Judy Ellis looked on the bright side. The ruling, she says, gives the legislature an opportunity to fix the law.

"I'm confident we'll eventually come up with something we can all live with," she was recently quoted. "My concern is that it's going to take a while. And in the meantime, it's like we're out there naked. We have nothing to protect us from the noisemakers."