Flash! Drivers have free speech rights!

Courts upholding drivers' right to tip off other motorists to police

Here’s something we’d like to see law enforcement officers add to their “I-have-bigger-things-to-worry-about” list: drivers who alert fellow motorists to police radar by flashing their lights.

Ticketing someone for a headlight heads-up is not only petty and heavy-handed, it’s a violation of the First Amendment.

The past two decades, state courts nationwide have ruled such driver-to-driver communication is protected free speech.

In the most recent case, an Oregon judge earlier this month tossed out a $260 ticket issued to a trucker for alerting an oncoming driver with a headlight flash.

“The citation was clearly given to punish the defendant for that expression,” the Oregon judge wrote. “The government certainly can and should enforce the traffic laws for the safety of all drivers on the road. However, the government cannot enforce the traffic laws, or any other laws, to punish drivers for their expressive conduct.”

Similar rulings have been handed down in Florida, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. There’s no reason to suspect the outcome would be different in other jurisdictions where such citations have yet to be challenged. Nor should they be.

But really, why would law enforcement even want to push the issue? Doesn’t headlight-flashing encourage motorists to slow down and drive safely? Isn’t that the point of speed traps anyway?

A clampdown on headlight flashers sends the message that police put revenue generation ahead of public safety.

It’s also another way our rights can be eroded – in this case, our free speech rights.

Rather than try to curb our rights, we’d like to see law enforcement agencies remind their officers what our rights are. For example, too often you see cases in which officers wrongfully, and illegally, prevent citizens from videoing their actions.

We’ve got that right, too.

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