Lawsuit Argues Honking Your Car Horn Is Protected By The First Amendment
from the #LEGALIZEIT dept
The First Amendment covers a whole lot of area. Since it covers “expression,” it doesn’t necessarily have to be anything commonly thought of as “speech.” It doesn’t have to be printed. It doesn’t have to be said. Lighting a flag on fire requires no statement of intent. The act itself is expressive enough. Passively gathering information (like recordings or public records) is protected by the First Amendment. Taking photos is a protected act, even if the photos are never used to express anything more than a memory of an event or place.
It has been argued nudity or partially-exposed bodies are expressions deserving of protection by the First Amendment. Exotic dancers and “bikini barristas” have engaged in multiple free speech lawsuits targeting allegedly unconstitutional restrictions on their expressive conduct.
A plaintiff currently suing a sheriff and the head of the California Highway Patrol is arguing that honking a car horn is protected speech and that the citation she received after engaging in this expression is unconstitutional. (via Courthouse News)
Susan Porter was driving by a protest held outside of Rep. Darrell Issa’s office. These frequent demonstrations gathered both protesters and counter-protesters, all of who made plenty of noise. Passing traffic would express their support/displeasure for Issa by honking their horns. (Which would make not honking your horn similarly protected expression, although it’s unlikely anyone would be cited for not honking their horn while driving by a protest.)
The demonstation briefly attended by Porter drew the attention of local law enforcement, who showed up to hand out citations to protesters. Porter was parked in a nearby parking lot. When the cops showed up, Porter decided to clear out. As she drove away past the protesters and newly-arrived law enforcement officers, she sent off one last car horn blast of support. Cue unneeded officer involvement. From the lawsuit [PDF]:
After Ms. Porter sounded her horn in support of the protest, Sheriff’s Deputy K. Klein (“Deputy Klein”), ID. Number 7275, directed Ms. Porter to pull over.
Deputy Klein told Ms. Porter she was pulled over for sounding her vehicle horn, and issued her a citation for alleged violation of Vehicle Code 27001, which states that “[t]he driver of a motor vehicle when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation shall give audible warning with his horn,” but “[t]he horn shall not otherwise be used, except as a theft alarm system” (emphasis added). Cal. Veh. Code 27001.
Section 27001 does not require that the use of a horn meet any specified noise level, disturb the peace, distract drivers or pedestrians, or endanger safety.
Ms. Porter’s citation… states that the citation was for violation of “27001(A) cvc [sic] — unreasonable use of horn” and contains no allegations as to noise level, disturbing the peace, distracting drivers or pedestrians, or endangering safety.
It looks like Deputy Klein didn’t like being honked at (though he wasn’t) by some protester slipping away from the scene of the crime in her vehicle and tagged her with a “don’t fuck [with] the police” ticket. I’m sure he never expected his department would be named in a civil rights lawsuit, but that’s the sort of thing that happens when the law is used in ways it shouldn’t be. If these law enforcement officers were that concerned about horn noise, all they had to do was camp out outside Issa’s office and hand out horn tickets all day long. But law enforcement is never about consistent enforcement. It’s highly selective and sometimes the law that ends up being enforced isn’t the one officers had in mind when they initiated the stop. (But that’s a completely different amendment.)
In this case, her honked horn wasn’t a violation of the law, but rather her way of “convey[ing] a message of support for the protest.” But it was also a violation of the law, if officers wanted to get technical. And Deputy Klein certainly did.
Selective enforcement of seldom-enforced laws around demonstrations and protests is a great way to rack up civil liberties violations and their attendant lawsuits. Porter claims the deputy’s decision to enforce the states horn ordinance out of the blue creates a chilling effect for politically-inclined drivers like herself.
Ms. Porter regularly drives her vehicle in areas of San Diego County and the State of California where the Sheriff’s Department or California Highway Patrol is responsible for traffic enforcement.
In driving her vehicle in those areas, Ms. Porter observes rallies, protests, demonstrations, or other events for which she would like to express her support through use of her vehicle horn.
Given the citation issued to her and her knowledge of the statute, Ms. Porter reasonably fears that the Sheriff’s Department or California Highway Patrol will enforce section 27001 against her if she uses her vehicle horn for such expressive purposes.
As a result, Ms. Porter is censoring herself by refraining from using her vehicle horn for expressive purposes, including but not limited to expressing support for political protests, rallies, or demonstrations.
It seems like a ridiculous legal hill to die on, but it does raise a valid point: if officers are going to use a horn ordinance to selectively punish supporters of certain causes, the state is basically placing itself between residents and their ability (however limited its usefulness in this particular application) to petition their government.
This will make for an interesting case. Porter isn’t alleging anything but an ongoing First Amendment controversy due to the state’s restriction on horn use. The state will likely claim the public is served by a law that discourages people from blowing their horns whenever they damn well please, but those arguments are going to sound kind of ridiculous when actually verbalized. Is a law really necessary to keep horns from blaring constantly? Or has it long been accepted horns do double-duty as expressive speech, delivering pithy messages like “You suck at driving,” “You suck in general,” “Your ride is here,” and “I heartily approve/disapprove of this issue being debated freely in the marketplace of ideas, which is apparently located at Rep. Issa’s office at the moment.”
Whatever the basis for the law, it was pretty clearly used here to express a law enforcement officer’s distaste for the message conveyed by Porter, even if the message the deputy received was “I support the people you’re currently citing for other legal violations,” rather than the one Porter intended to send. Since it would be almost impossible to carve out a protest-only waiver on horn restrictions, the court either has to find the law unconstitutional in whole or decide it can be selectively used to punish ostensibly political speech. However it decides to handle this, it should be a fun case to watch.