Flashing your headlights: a first amendment right? (Part 1)September 23rd, 2011 by josh farley
Blogger’s Note: When a Florida man flashed his headlights to warn oncoming motorists of an upcoming speed trap, he was pulled over and ticketed. He’s taken the fight to court, where he’s filed a class-action lawsuit alleging his free speech rights were violated.
I’ve sought the perspective of two locals — Bremerton defense attorney Stan Glisson and Port Orchard top cop Al Townsend — to give us their take on this unusual but intriguing case. Glisson’s essay will run today while Townsend’s commentary will appear here Saturday. Be sure to read up on the case first.
A car passes a hazard on a roadway; maybe a downed tree, maybe an animal in the road, maybe a police speed trap. The driver flashes their headlights as they approach oncoming traffic, to warn them of the peril ahead. The practice has existed as long as I have been driving, usually to warn of a parked police officer running their radar.
It is no surprise that some police officers disapprove of the practice. But in Florida, that disapproval commonly went one step further to ticketing the drivers for flashing their headlights. Police alleged basically that the headlight flashing is a distraction to others, but the perception is that the citations were issued as retribution for disrupting their speed trap.
One Florida man who saw a speed trap and flashed his lights as a warning at other drivers got such a ticket. He is now suing the state, arguing that flashing headlights is a form of communication, a type of ‘speech’ protected by our first amendment. Interestingly, since the lawsuit, Florida police have been instructed to discontinue the practice of issuing such tickets.
Protected speech takes as many forms as we have imagination. It’s one thing to tell a friend you saw a speed trap. It’s another to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. But free speech contains almost everything in between.
The idea of free speech is not always easy to swallow. It is completely fair to think that speeders should get caught and cited, and anyone trying to warn them is obstructing good police work. But if we believe in free speech in this country, it means protecting all speech. The most important speech to protect is the unpopular; it needs protection the most. We are free to talk to each other about what the government is doing, whether war strategy, economic policy, or police activity. The right to speak out against the government was arguably the most important right to our founding fathers, hence its prominent position in the Bill of Rights. The freedom we enjoy to speak our minds has to extend to warnings about speed traps, to literature, to profanity, and yes, on occasion to pasties on baristas.
Where the Florida law suit will end up is anyone’s guess. It speaks volumes that the police have stopped issuing these tickets. If you see a speed trap and want to warn other drivers, flash those lights. If you don’t want to, that’s fine too. We have to respect your decision about what you choose to say or not to say and every idea, popular or not, must be allowed to be heard. As Atticus Finch said, the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience. So do as your conscience tells you. As for me, I’ll keep flashing my lights.
Stan Glisson is an attorney in Bremerton with the firm Glisson, Witt and Altman. Their firm mainly handles DUI and misdemeanor defense, as well as felony defense and civil cases. Glisson earned his law degree at the University of Washington, has worked as a Kitsap County deputy prosecutor, and as a Kitsap and Snohomish defense attorney before entering private practice.