A Small Town in Pennsylvania Is Treading on This Naval Officer’s First Amendment Rights

Pictured: Lt. Com. Joshua Corney stands in front of his loudspeakers on his property in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania.

Lieutenant Commander Joshua Corney, an active duty naval officer who lives in rural Pennsylvania, returned from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan with a promise. As he settled back into life stateside, he wanted to offer a meaningful tribute to his fellow service members — especially those who never had the chance to come home.

So, in 2015, he started playing a recording of taps — a military bugle call most often heard at sunset and at military funerals — on his five-acre property in Glen Rock, a small town of 2,000 people near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Every evening before 8:00 p.m., Lt. Commander Corney would offer the musical testament to all who have served.

“I play this audio memorial in remembrance of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice as well as those who continue to serve and protect our country and freedoms,” said Lt. Commander Corney, who is represented by lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It is a way to honor a promise I made to God — by taking 57 seconds each day to reflect on sacrifices made 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to obtain and sustain our freedoms."

For nearly two years, his tribute went on with little controversy. The borough allows other music to be amplified on a regular basis, including church hymns and bells and live performances at a local restaurant. At less than a minute long, the recording of taps was one of the borough’s shorter pieces of amplified music. When one neighbor approached Lt. Commander Corney about a year ago to ask if he could turn down the volume, Corney accommodated the request by reorienting the speakers away from the neighbor’s home. But this spring, the controversy erupted when another neighbor complained to the borough.

This controversy is a reminder that no matter who you are or your station in life, you may need the Constitution.

In response, the borough ordered Corney to limit the playing of taps to Sundays and what it termed “flag holidays.” Each violation of the borough’s order would bring a criminal fine of 300 dollars. But the borough’s enforcement action involves two big constitutional no-nos: the heckler’s veto and content-based censorship.

The borough is relying on a nuisance ordinance that prohibits sound that “annoys or disturbs” others. In a patriotic town like Glen Rock, which is home to many military veterans, it’s no surprise that Lt. Commander Corney has many supporters. But a single complaint triggered the enforcement action. If a “heckler” could shut down anyone who said or played something that annoyed or offended them by complaining to government officials, freedom of speech would be no more. For more than 75 years, it has been black letter First Amendment law that the government cannot censor speech simply because it is not universally appreciated.

Moreover, the borough cannot use its vague nuisance ordinance to single out only Lt. Commander Corney’s musical expression for censorship from the range of sounds that are part of the borough’s regular sonic landscape. The borough has not ordered Lt. Commander Corney to lower the volume of taps or claimed he has violated a noise-level ordinance.

And it could not claim such a violation because the recording neither exceeds any established noise levels nor is it as loud as many other sounds the borough tolerates — including many sounds that do not communicate a message, like lawnmowers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, and vehicles. Censoring clearly protected expression, like taps, for being too loud, while allowing louder sounds that carry no constitutionally protected message turns the First Amendment on its head.

The borough has decided that taps alone, among the other musical sounds in the borough, must be silenced. The borough may not make this type of “content-based” distinction without some compelling reason, which doesn’t exist in this situation.

Last week, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the borough council to insist that Glen Rock drop its threat to fine Lt. Commander Corney and honor his First Amendment right to free expression. The dispute is not yet resolved, but on Friday the borough indicated that it would review the ACLU’s demand at its regularly scheduled July 19 meeting. In the meantime, Lt. Commander Corney will resume his nightly ritual.

Free-speech cases often arise in unusual settings. Some people may be surprised that a serviceman’s broadcast of taps — a song widely regarded as patriotic and intended to honor the sacrifices of those who place themselves in harm’s way to fight for our constitutional rights — would end up being the focus of a First Amendment censorship battle. This controversy is a reminder that no matter who you are or your station in life, you may need the Constitution.

Add a comment (242)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

Well, what's unique about this is it's the same music over and over. Imagine someone played Jingle Bells every day in honor of St. Nicholaus. There is precedence being set by his action. After a while, the same thing played over and over would become a nuisance. Not the level of the sound, but the regular occurrence.

American

Playing a recording of Taps is as patriotic as saluting a drawing of a flag -- it's meaningless. If he actually played the trumpet (or had someone else play it), it might hold some significance, but this man is just making a fool of himself. So many "patriots" get wrapped up in the worship of symbols that they lose sight of what they SHOULD be acknowledging: the Constitution. Flags, Taps, anthems, and pledges hold no meaning. They are what the unintelligent wrap themselves in to make themselves feel self-important.

gkohler32027@gm...

Neither the constitution nor local civil law recognize "rank" as a tool by which civil action may be measured.

Corney's military position is wholly irrelevant. His recognition of those who have not returned is likewise irrelevant.

What is relevant is that taps played at a level other's find bothersome should be noted. In fact of civil law if others in the community complain "taps" is too loud it becomes just another "noise". Regardless taps is a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom it quickly becomes another distraction.

Anonymous

The Constitution is not about your convenience! They need to address NOISE, not just his noise, or they have to allow it. Period.

Anonymous

57 seconds a day? That is pretty much bull to harass anyone. Life is too short for everyone to get upset about that. Where I live, the ordinance is 10pm to 6am, or anything longer than 20 minutes during the day because of shift workers needing to sleep. Obviously there are exceptiong to that and permitting can be worked out to allow for longer.

But seriously, threatening to fine him because two people complained about something that happens for 57 seconds? You dinguses need to find something better to complain about. He has every right to do this and you whiners need to get a life.

Zenwick

I think this is a case where it's a mistake to deal in absolutes. Suppose I like Donald Trump and my neighbor doesn't. Am I within my rights to stand outside my house once in a while and expound on the God Emperor's virtues? I expect so. Can I set up a loudspeaker to play The Collected Works of Rush Limbaugh in his direction ten hours a day? Most people would consider that an abuse of my responsibilities as a neighbor. You need to draw the line somewhere.

Bill Schmidt

And I find it annoying when people run lawn mowers and blowers. Out on my 5 acres I frequently have helicopters and small planes. I hear tractors and other power equipment. If I complain can I get all those annoyances stopped? Play Taps. Its very pretty. If you work odd hours, tough, If you don't like that particular show of patriotism, tough. If you have a County/City ordinance that prohibits all amplified music or noises above a certain decibel level, that may be another issue.

Anonymous

Many comments are noting the volume as a problem. But it is not a violation of any noise regulation. The gist of the article, and the ACLU's support is that since it doesn't actually violate any regulation, it is covered as freedom of expression. Had the borough argued that it violated a noise ordinance then they would have a valid case. But as it is, there is no ordinance that it violates. So the borough does not have a case

milret2

I am also a proud, retired Army officer. Taps has always been a solemn, beautiful sound to me worthy of stopping and reflecting for a few, short minutes on those who gave their lives, limbs, health, or sanity or some combination of that doing what our country ordered them to do ... go into battle and
do what they can for the other soldiers, officers, and men with them to accomplish the mission given . Fifty seven seconds of evening music is, in this case, speech. Let it be.

Anonymous

This is right action for society September 2017 Calendar October 2017 Calendar sample template

Pages

Stay Informed