Virginian Takes Case of Being Fined for Honking to the Supreme Court
Susan Porter of California is set to take her case to the Supreme Court after being fined for honking her car in protest against her congresswoman in 2017. Porter’s argument, according to USA Today, is that honking is a form of free speech and that drivers should not be fined for it.
The district judge and appeals court panel have both ruled against Porter, but in late October, her attorneys filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking a writ of certiorari, with the intention of having the lower court’s decision reviewed. “The car horn is the sound of democracy in action,” Porter’s lawyers said in their appeal.
Porter’s petition to the Supreme Court raises a difficult question: Is honking free speech? Under the laws of at least 41 states, the answer is no. Many states have laws that restrict honking your car for any purpose other than warning other drivers or pedestrians of danger, even if they are not normally enforced.
For example, New Jersey has a law that states, “The driver of a motor vehicle, when reasonably necessary to ensure safe operation, shall give an audible warning with his horn, but shall not otherwise use such horn when is on a road.” However, it is widely acknowledged that this law is rarely, if ever, enforced. New York has a similar law, allowing honking only as a warning of danger.
Texas also has a law stating that “It shall be unlawful for the driver or operator of any motor vehicle to sound a horn, gong, or other warning device in a loud, unusual, or unnecessary manner, or to use the same at any time or place except as a warning of danger.”
Many states also have specific, circumstantial honking laws, for things like noise pollution. Therefore, certain areas may have laws that prohibit honking at certain times, to prevent drivers from honking in residential areas in the middle of the night, for example.
Despite these laws, honking has become a fairly ubiquitous form of expression among drivers, ranging from expressing support for certain causes, displaying gratitude, or just for the sake of making noise. Porter is challenging the current state of affairs and advocating for honking as a form of free speech.
Honking is reportedly used to express support for striking workers, politicians, and sports teams. Friends honk to get each other’s attention, and some drivers might honk to say thank you when someone lets them into traffic. It is even a notorious form of mischief-making by children in the back seat of a car, as is the case with Susan Porter’s child.
The crux of the matter is whether all these forms of honking can be considered as a form of protected speech. According to current legislation, it is not, and Porter’s case is a response to that.
The Supreme Court’s decision could have far-reaching implications for drivers and the freedom of expression. Until the case is heard, the fate of honking as a form of free speech remains in the balance.
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