Zimmerman: One lesson from the Michael Dunn trial? Turn down the volume

Excessive sound is a menace to sound bodies

Excessive sound is a menace to sound bodies and minds. And we should all keep that in mind, even as we mourn the young man who was silenced in Jacksonville. (Credit: iStock)

So here's a little fact that might have escaped you amid all of the buzz over the "loud music" trial in Florida: Until 2012, the state barred drivers from playing music that was "plainly audible" at a distance of 25 feet or more from their vehicles.

But a few weeks after Michael Dunn shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis, Florida's Supreme Court struck down the car-music law. The measure's "plainly audible" standard was vague, the court ruled, and it impinged on drivers' "free speech rights."

Nothing justifies the violent behavior of Dunn, who has been found guilty of three counts of second-degree attempted murder for getting out of his car at a Jacksonville convenience store and firing several times at Davis' vehicle. The judge declared a mistrial on the most serious charge, first-degree murder, after a jury could not reach agreement on it.

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The state attorney said she plans to retry Dunn for murder, as well she should. Dunn testified that someone in Davis' car pointed a shotgun at him, but the weapon was never found; nor did he tell his fiance about it after the episode. He did tell her that Davis and the three other men in his car were playing "thug music," which reinforced the racial dimensions of the case: Dunn is white, and all of the people in Davis' car were black.

But we shouldn't let the ugly racial tinge of the Jacksonville tragedy obscure the need for sensible noise-control laws. Nobody has the right to make any sound they please, if it disturbs others. That's one of the first lessons we teach our kids, when we ask them to use their "quiet voices."

Quiet was hard to find in America's cities in the early 1900s, when the modern noise-control movement was born. Its leading figure was Julia Barnett Rice, a New York mother of six who started the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise in 1906. The following year, she helped persuade Congress to pass the first federal noise law, which restricted the tooting of whistles and sirens by tugboats.

A physician by training, Rice carefully catalogued how tugboat noise interfered with New Yorkers' sleep patterns and increased their anxiety. She then organized a children's branch of her society, which collected pledges to keep quiet near hospitals. "I offer up this sacrifice so as to comfort the sick," promised one youth, "and to prevent all sorts of noise that are not necessary."

Meanwhile, other municipalities were passing ordinances to restrict drum corps (Baltimore), piano playing (Portland), bell-ringing (Boston), and any noise "having a tendency to frighten horses" (San Francisco). But cities soon faced a more serious noise hazard from a new form of transportation: the private automobile.

The biggest problem was excessive honking, which cities started to regulate in the 1930s. "A noiseless auto is as pleasant as a speechless mother-in-law," a New York campaign declared, in one of the anti-noise movement's most unfortunate slogans.

Restrictions on music from automobiles date to the 1970s and 1980s, when stereo technology improved and the burgeoning environmental movement targeted "noise pollution" alongside other kinds of hazards. Some cities allowed police to impound cars that played music too loudly. And in one Colorado town, a light-hearted judge made national headlines in 1998 when he ordered violators to gather at City Hall and listen to Barry Manilow, Tiny Tim, and the theme song from "Barney and Friends."

An eye for an eye, and a song for a song: if you boom Beyonce, we'll pump Barney right back at you. But the real issue was volume, of course, not taste. At high enough decibel levels, any sound can injure your health. Recent studies have linked noise to sleep deprivation, hearing loss, stress, and -- yes -- aggression.

We'll probably never know what really drove Michael Dunn to shoot Jordan Davis. But here's what we do know: excessive sound is a menace to sound bodies and minds. And we should all keep that in mind, even as we mourn the young man who was silenced in Jacksonville.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His most recent book is "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).

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