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
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
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
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