Motorcycle noise is not a first amendment right

Photo credit: Pulicciano licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This story by NPR discusses what will be the last Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride in the nation’s capital. The Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride first took place in 1988, an excuse to ride loud motorcycles through Washington, D.C. to honor veterans and troops killed in action, and to put pressure on the government to do more to find those still missing. The organizers of the Rolling Thunder ride will be organizing their last event in Washington D.C. this coming Memorial Day, 2019. After that, they will celebrate local and regional motorcycle rides but won’t have an organized ride in D.C. because “the event had become too costly and that federal agencies were making it overly difficult to organize.”

A Pentagon spokesperson said, “[t]he department supports the peaceful, lawful exercise of American citizens’ First Amendment rights, and remains focused on ensuring the safety and security of the demonstrators and the Pentagon Reservation. The department is prepared to support the 2019 Rolling Thunder ride, as we have for the last 31 years.”

Some might interpret this statement to mean that the Pentagon supports citizens riding noisy motorcycles as an exercise of their free speech. I don’t think this is what those who wrote and passed the First Amendment meant. And I don’t think this is what the Pentagon means, either.

I’m a doctor, not a constitutional lawyer, but I can read the Constitution as well as anyone else. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Honoring veterans and pressuring the government to find those still missing action, and complaining about restrictions on a large, noisy motorcycle event are examples of protected free speech. Motorcycle noise is not.

States clearly have a legal right to regulate motorcycle noise, and according to the American Automobile Association, many do, even if state and local police agencies are reluctant to enforce these laws.

And there’s a federal law as well, namely transportation noise emission regulations. The law is very detailed, with different decibel levels depending on the engine size and purpose of the motorcycle (street use or off-road use) but 80 decibels is a common limit. Many if not most motorcycles exceed this limit.

Motorcycle riders may be a powerful constituency, but they are a minority. Their right to make noise stops at our ears.

If enough citizens exercise our First Amendment rights to complain to elected officials and police authorities, the laws will be enforced and we will have a quieter world.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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