Not justified: Court strikes down radio rules

Published On: Dec 13 2012 02:20:46 PM EST   Updated On: Dec 13 2012 11:11:51 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Motorists are free to blast Justin Timberlake -- or any other music they choose -- as loud as they wish, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court unanimously struck down a state law barring drivers from blaring their radios at a volume that was "plainly audible" to someone 25 feet away. Three of the seven justices -- Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justices Charles Canady and Peggy Quince -- didn't fully support the reasoning behind the decision, but didn't write opinions saying where they differed.

The ruling upholds the opinion of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, though the Supreme Court said the law was not unconstitutionally vague, one of the reasons the DCA gave for striking down the law. Instead, the high court said the law infringed on the freedom of expression.

Writing for the majority, Justice Jorge Labarga highlighted a part of the law that exempts commercial and political messages from the ban, saying that amounted to a restriction on certain kinds of speech, a violation of the First Amendment.

Labarga's ruling was skeptical of the state's argument that the ban was justified because it makes traffic safer -- but said that didn't matter.

"The State simply argues that noncommercial vehicles are more dangerous to the public because they are ubiquitous," he wrote. "This argument, however, fails to explain how a commercial or political vehicle amplifying commercial or political messages audible a mile away is less dangerous or more tolerable than a noncommercial vehicle amplifying a religious message audible just over twenty-five feet away from the vehicle."

The case was brought by Richard Catalano, a lawyer who got a $73 ticket for listening to Justin Timberlake on his way to work one morning in 2007. Catalano said he was surprised by the fine and decided to fight the law's constitutionality in court. Alexander Schermerhorn also challenged the law.

Justices also rejected an argument from the state that it could chop off the exemption for business and political speech, though that portion of the ruling could also signal a way to work around the shortcoming.

"Severing the provision from the statute would expand the statute's reach beyond what the Legislature contemplated," Labarga wrote. "Accordingly, in striving to show great deference to the Legislature, this Court will not legislate and sever provisions that would effectively expand the scope of the statute's intended breadth."

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office was reviewing the decision.