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Halloo to Your Heart’s Content PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 01 April 2003 18:00
Things could get a little less peaceful in Rock Island now. You might not be able to tell the difference yet, but once word gets out, citizens will probably take to the streets en masse, making loud and unusual noises at will, perhaps even beating sounding vessels or hallooing. You see, on December 27, a retiring circuit judge, ruling on case 2000 OV 903, struck down Rock Island’s “disturbing the peace” ordinance.

The rambling 31-page decision/screed by Judge Dennis A. DePorter is a treasure that deserves to be read widely instead of gathering dust in storage at the county courthouse. It illustrates that the restrained, sober legal system can sometimes show outrage as well as a sense of humor. It demonstrates how poorly written and ill-considered ordinances can be, and that they can stand unchallenged for years. And it explains how ordinances can be so broad that they can be easily abused by police and prosecutors.

Once outlawed but now permitted (and these are taken from the text of the ordinance) are “loud or unusual noises, by blowing of horns, bugles, or other instruments or by the beating of drums, kettles, or other sounding vessels or instruments or by the ringing of bells or crying of goods, … or by loud or boisterous laughing or by singing, bellowing, whopping, screaming, hallooing, swearing, or cursing.” Furthermore, the striking of this law now allows people to behave in a “tumultuous, riotous, indecent, disorderly, or offensive manner,” and even permits public urination and defecation.

I’m making fun of the ordinance, as DePorter does in his decision. But the case has a serious side.

“This ordinance is so broad that every resident and visitor to the city of Rock Island could be arrested for its violation at almost any time … which is the beauty to both the Rock Island Police Department and the prosecution for the City,” DePorter wrote. “If you want to arrest someone, a ‘reason’ will be found. … This city ordinance is a most unique ‘catch-all’ when nothing else apparently seems to get the accused arrested.”

Moreover, DePorter said the case goes to the heart of free-speech issues. “This ordinance is about the suppression of words … no matter how lame, silly, ‘stupid,’ and seemingly unintelligent,” he wrote. “Words are important.”

The judge’s complaints weren’t merely theoretical. “It must be known that this Rock Island City ordinance and its enforcement are regular visitors to the circuit court at the Rock Island County courthouse,” he wrote. He estimated that there are between 10 and 50 “disturbing the peace” charges a year in the city.

Rock Island City Attorney John Konecky said the city does not plan to appeal the ruling. The police department has been asked to provide information on “what circumstances that ordinance applies to that are unique” – in other words, not covered by other ordinances, Konecky said. That information would help the city “properly tailor an ordinance to a need,” he said.

The ruling came in the case of Sandra Brown, who on April 22, 2000, was charged with “disturbing the peace.” The complaint stated that Brown “created a loud or unusual noise by screaming, hallooing, swearing, or cursing.”

DePorter didn’t just dismiss the case (albeit two and a half years after the charge, and nearly two years after taking it under advisement). He struck down the ordinance four days before his retirement. And he didn’t mince words. “The greatest, but not the only, defect with this ordinance is that it prohibits innocent conduct,” he wrote. “Add on that this ordinance is vague, over-broad, and a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (freedom of speech and freedom of religion).”

The judge was merciless in pillorying the ordinance. “Handel’s Messiah is BOTH ‘loud’ and ‘unusual.’ So is Mozart,” he wrote in one passage. “Does anyone, who thinks, wonder why ‘unusual’ noises are unlawful?”

“It is quite clearly improper for people in Rock Island to laugh loudly,” he noted at another juncture. “Thanks partly to this ordinance, no one can, or does, laugh loudly in Rock Island. Oh, sure, maybe across the river in Iowa there may be loud laughter, but not in a sophisticated city like Rock Island. … Polite, restrained laughter is what is to be heard in Rock Island.”

DePorter laid the blame for many of the city’s ills at the feet of this ordinance. “Rock Island may have a reputation for not being a friendly city,” he wrote. “This ordinance may be part of the cause of that reputation. … Those grim, stern looks seen on Rock Islanders’ faces are not simply the result of Rock Island’s weak economy, high unemployment, the having the eighth highest rate of taxation in all of Illinois, as many may think. Rather, those grim, unhappy, stern faces of Rock Island folks are, maybe, an attempt to comply with the stern, grim local Rock Island City ordinance.”

And these are just samples. The decision includes extended discussions of religion, forbidden words, cursing, blasphemy, and public urination. Throughout, the decision’s tone is dogmatic and nearly frothing, and it generates more than a few giggles – both in terms of the subject matter and the way it’s presented.

Yet the judge stressed his sincerity in attacking the ordinance. “The case of City of Rock Island v. Sandra Brown is not ‘funny,’” he wrote. “This is very serious.”

Actually, it’s a bit of both.
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