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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Anonymous

I agree with "Proud Veteran". This isn't any different than someone blasting party music every night. There are noise ordinances in many communities that restrict the loudness, timing and/or location of loud sounds, including mowers, blowers, car music, barking dogs, etc.. I do agree with the ACLU that a ban on this specific noise may be inappropriate, but I agree with efforts to curb unwelcome noise that infringes on other people's rights to not have to listen to it.

Get some earplugs

57 seconds @ 8pm is a nuisance? Get some earplugs and get over it. In most municipalities quiet hours are between 10pm & 6am. I don't like the mariachi music that blares @ 7am on a Saturday next door to me but that's the price of living around people.

citygirl

I would agree IF the borough had called everyone else's noises a nuisance. Frankly, I'd be angry to hear hymns being piped all over the place. The Borough are in the wrong because they are not treating everyone equally. To silence him, they should have silenced everyone piping music into their hamlet. I'd be far more angry at the hymns than Taps. Regardless, unless there is a specific noise ordinance that he is breaking, they either need to pass one, and apply it across the board to everyone, or let him play his taps.

Anonymous

Where in the constitution does it say crabby neighbors have the "right to peace"? If I were you I'd give a little more thought to how singling his 57 second taps for a ban might come back to bite others. Would you support a ban on a particular church's bells ringing because one neighbor complained about them? If they censor him, they can do it to others, including you. Don't be so quick to give up your own rights.

Anonymous

Where in the constitution does it say crabby neighbors have the "right to peace"? If I were you I'd give a little more thought to how singling his 57 second taps out for a ban might come back to bite others. Would you support a ban on a particular church's bells ringing because one neighbor complained about them? If they censor him, they can do it to others, including you. Don't be so quick to give up your own rights.

Anonymous

To every 'valid' reason posted here as to why to shut down 'taps' at 8 pm, others would say, no backyard barbecues with music; get a job where you work during 'normal' hours so that you sleep when all other normal people sleep; no kids yelling and screetching as they jump in the water because it's downright annoying; no playing of pomp and circumstance at the stadium...you know this debate could go on and on as we ALL know. You cannot have your own brand of 'perfect' liberty if you don't give that same 'perfect' liberty to another.

DB

I think the ACLU is correct that he has the right to do this but I agree with you that it may make him a bad neighbor. It's fair to ask why this ritual he performs every night has to be done outdoors loud enough to be heard by the neighbors instead of inside on his stereo. If his neighbors want to hear it, they can play it in their own homes. But unfortunately, it's not against the law to be inconsiderate and self-absorbed.

Anonymous

You should read the article again. Protected by the Constitution. And what he plays isn't nearly as loud as anything else that plays on those speakers. End of story. 'Murica

Anonymous

Also a veteran - and I would side with objectors. Playing taps every day in his own home is one thing - setting up loud speakers on his property to play it to the public every single evening is another. I would also object to people broadcasting 'O Holy Night' every night from their property, or broadcasting their nightly prayers (hoping to have a better shot at catching God's attention?) even if those were all under a minute. It is the act of 'powering' the message with the purpose of publicly sharing (or from the listener's perspective - being forced to endure) the private thoughts/hopes/dreams/inspiration/joys/sorrow etc.. which makes this activity egregious.

marcia ilene

I was almost in agreement with you. But after reading the ACLU argument, I think 57 seconds a day of Taps is no different than 57 seconds of a lawn mover or lawn blower. The ACLU's argument is important. First Amendment Rights must be applied equally.

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