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.

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Proud Veteran

Oh Hell No! And I'm a super proud veteran.

No he does not have the right violate other peoples peace through noise!

1. His property is only 5 acres. Sound travels very far from loud speakers, much further than 5 acres.

2. His neighbors have the right to peace. Sounds that occur peacefully in nature are accepted. Loud noises that are not natural are a nuisance.

3. Why does he feel the need to "share" with everyone? I get he's patriotic, so am I. However, I don't purposely try to force my views and lifestyle on anyone. WTF dude?

4. What if a firefighter or policeman lives near by and works odd hours? He/she would surely be annoyed and their performance impacted by such disregard.

The bugle call belongs on Base where it originated. Not all people in American society rise and fall at the same time everyday. We have varying responsibilities from person to person. This idiot is disregarding everything he was trained to defend.

Noise is pollution.

Agree Agree Agree

I agree with this. This is rude and noise travels, it has nothing to do with "free speech."

Anonymous

Hypocrite much?

1. It is 57 seconds out of an entire day. You better be ready to ban everything that makes noise then, including lawnmowers, birds, trains, car alarms, concerts, church bells, and anything else that makes any noise at all...cause someone might be sleeping.

2. "However, I don't purposely try to force my views and lifestyle on anyone." Except you are, right now, in your own comment.

3. If it can only be played on base then you've now decreed that no military funeral will ever again have taps played. I'll let YOU tell the family why...oh an make sure to stop by the Girl and Boy Scouts and let them know they can't use it anymore either. (While it was originally (1835) a way to tell the base it was time for lights out, it has been used for funerals and at other times since 1848.)

4. Lastly, it is not up to you to defend or deny this person from doing what they want, that is what the Constitution and the laws of this country do. If you now work as a police officer, then perhaps it is time for some review on what people can and can't do on their own property.

Anonymous

Did you read the article? He's playing it more quietly than leaf blowers, lawnmowers, and various other outdoor amplified sounds/broadcasts in his community, and he's playing it at 8PM. As a noise-sensitive work-at-home writer, I confess I'd find it about as annoying as the neighbor's kid's violin practice or weekly 7.30 AM leaf blowers. But there is no legal grounds for singling out his noise, out of many louder neighborhood noises, for censorship.

Anonymous

The point is that the town has singled out this particular noise and is therefore limiting speech based on content.

Proud son of a ...

Loud noises that are not part of nature are a nuisance? So the borough should ban gas powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, trimmers, chain saws, etc? I can guarantee those are run for more than 1 minute to get the job done. They should ban the church bells, cars with loud radios and exhausts, and live music?

Argue your fights a bit better. This isn't the hill to die on.

Yes ban them

Yes be them! If you're running your mower or leaf blower between sundown and 9am then you're a noisy idiot. I know, I know, it happens all the time but doesn't make it right. I lived in an apartment and had a job that started at 1pm so I usually slept until 10... but every other day at 730am that dam Mexican would be landscaping starting at 6 am. Fuck that! This is the city, not a goddam farm!

Yes ban them

Yes ban them! If you're running your mower or leaf blower between sundown and 9am then you're a noisy idiot. I know, I know, it happens all the time but doesn't make it right. I lived in an apartment and had a job that started at 1pm so I usually slept until 10... but every other day at 730am that dam Mexican would be landscaping starting at 6 am. Fuck that! This is the city, not a goddam farm!

Not your right

It not your right to create noise pollution no matter the cause! I understand free speech all to well. However, standing outside someone's house and blasting music over a loud speaker is not free speech.

For all those supposedly "patriotic" Americans that support him, can I come to your street and blast Jay-Z from my car at 5am? Is that free speech? I love Jay-Z and believe what he has to say is good for America. I'm a patriot! Can I blast it and make you listen to it through your walls!?

Get real people! Noise is noise no matter the reason or speech!

Anonymous

Agree with the above "Proud Veteran." Well said.

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