Is flashing your car’s headlights protected speech?
November 20, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
Suppose you are driving and you see a police car pulled over to the side of the road, radar gun out, waiting to catch a speeder. You pass the officer, and a little down the way, you flash your high beams at the oncoming traffic, warning the drivers of the trap.
You would be doing them a favor, but would you also be exercising your First Amendment right to free speech?
Erich Campbell found out that helping other motorists might draw the ire of the Florida Highway Patrol. After flashing his car’s headlights to warn other drivers of a speed trap, he was stopped and ticketed. The highway patrol said flashing his car’s headlights was illegal.
It turns out that flashing your headlights at other motorists is not a crime. Campbell sued, alleging that the police violated his right to free speech. Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the Florida Highway Patrol ordered all troopers to stop issuing tickets to motorists who use their headlights to signal other drivers.
Campbell is not the first helpful driver to get ticketed. Four similar cases had popped up in Florida; in each case, the judge overturned the ticket. Campbell’s lawsuit used these cases as precedent. “In each of these examples,” his lawsuit said,
“Florida courts properly found that (the law) does not prohibit the flashing of headlights as a means of communication.”
In a case involving Ryan Kinter of Lake Mary, Fla., Judge Alan Dickey said: “If the goal of the traffic law is to promote safety and not to raise revenue, then why wouldn’t we want everyone who sees a law enforcement officer with a radar gun in his hand, blinking his lights to slow down all those other cars?” The judge later said Kintner was protected by the First Amendment.
In Missouri, Michael Elli was ticketed when he warned other motorists of a speed trap by flashing his car’s headlights. A judge threatened to file a charge of obstruction of justice, but the case was eventually dropped. Elli is pursuing a lawsuit against the City of Ellsville, arguing that the local government is suppressing drivers’ right to free speech because it doesn’t like the message.
Courts in Florida, Utah and Tennessee have ruled on the question of whether flashing your car’s headlights is a form of protected speech or obstruction of justice. They all have decided that the act is protected speech.
What do you think?
Is flashing your car’s headlights a form of protected speech? Is warning other drivers an obstruction of justice? If you were a judge, how would you rule? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
Join the Discussion