It’s a [Speed] Trap! Flashing Headlights Protected Speech?
In the U.S., the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to freedom of speech. But what speech is protected, and what really is “speech”, has been under review since the amendment was enacted.
In the past hundred years, judges have determined that “hate speech,” or discriminatory speech that vilifies a person or group, is protected speech (so long as the speech doesn’t incite someone to violence). In addition, judges have ruled that “speech” does not necessarily mean the spoken word. Acts that communicate a message, such as contributing money to a political campaign, burning the U.S. flag, and even refusing to speak, are considered protected speech.
However, free speech does have its limits. The most well-known example of these limits is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater: speech that incites actions causing harm to others is not protected under the First Amendment.
What about flashing your headlights to warn others of a speed trap ahead? Should this be considered protected speech?
According to Michael J. Elli, the answer is yes.
Elli was pulled over and ticketed in Ellisville, Missouri for flashing his headlights to oncoming drivers, warning them of a speed trap ahead. He was ticketed for improper flashing of signals.
Though the moving violation charges were eventually dropped, the case will continue.
A recent issue of the ABA Journal reported, “In April, Elli filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Ellisville, alleging in a class action suit that the city engages in a policy and custom of retaliating against drivers who warn other motorists of possible speed traps. His complaint contends that the act of flashing headlights is a form of protected speech.”
Elli’s lawyer compared flashing your headlights to telling someone that same message at a gas station.
Tennessee, Utah, and Florida have all heard cases dealing with this issue. In Tennessee and Utah, judges have ruled in favor of the driver. In Florida, flashing headlights is specifically protected from prosecution.
We’d like to know what you think of this case. Have you ever been pulled over for flashing your headlights to warn of speed traps? Do you think it should be considered protected speech?