When an Oceanside woman beeped her car horn in support of a political protest last year, the 63-year-old quickly found herself pulled over and ticketed.
The problem? According to the state vehicle code, horns are to be honked only for safety reasons or as part of a car alarm.
Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties is asking a federal judge to find that state law unconstitutional, arguing in a newly filed lawsuit that preventing such honking chills free speech.
“We don’t think they should be enforcing this against people engaging in protected speech,” said David Loy, an attorney with the ACLU chapter.
The argument holds that honking a horn in express support of a political demonstration is protected speech under both the First Amendment and the California Constitution.
The suit was filed Monday in San Diego federal court on behalf of Susan Porter, who was ticketed for honking her horn as she drove by a demonstration outside U.S. Rep Darrell Issa’s Vista office on Oct. 17.
Porter deferred to her attorney for comment Tuesday. But on the day she received the ticket, she told the Union-Tribune that she gave two beeps, three times — “and my horn is the wimpiest in the world” — as she drove by the crowd while looking for parking.
That, she said, is when a deputy made a U-turn and pulled her over.
She vowed that day to fight the ticket, which was subsequently dismissed when the deputy who issued it didn’t show up for the traffic court hearing.
Even though the ticket was dismissed, Loy said, the battle here is the larger matter of political expression. The suit argues Porter is “censoring herself by refraining from using her vehicle horn for expressive purposes,” including supporting political rallies.
The suit targets the county Sheriff’s Department as the agency that ticketed Porter, and also the California Highway Patrol. The CHP had nothing to do with the ticket, but is the agency tasked with enforcing statewide traffic laws such as the vehicle code in question.
The Sheriff’s Department and the CHP each declined comment Tuesday; both agencies cited their policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Issa’s office did not respond Tuesday for requests for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Porter’s attorney sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Department in November, asking it to “refrain from enforcing” the vehicle code against protected speech.
The department’s response, according Porter’s suit, was that her ticket “was not issued as a content-based regulation of speech, but rather a straight forward violation of the Vehicle Code.”
The response also included: “Whether your legal theory is valid or not is something that is best left for a court to decide.”
Porter had been taking part in one of the weekly protests outside the congressman’s office along Thibodo Road. The demonstrations started as pushback against President Donald Trump and his agenda and actions, and Issa as a Trump supporter.
The hour-long events every Tuesday for more than a year routinely drew 300 protesters who said they saw it as a battlefront for the mid-term elections.
But the demonstrations also drew complaints from the building owner, who cited the noise and trampled grass, and from neighboring homeowners ticked off by the traffic and parking violations on the two-lane road.
This is not the first time the weekly rallies drew an assist from the ACLU. A little more than a year ago, the civil rights group stepped in when the city of Vista tightened restrictions on the protesters, including where they could stand and how loud they could get.
The city eventually backed off.
On Oct. 17, the demonstration featured a 20-foot-tall inflatable chicken in the dirt across the street from building that houses Issa’s office.
A sheriff’s official said he was worried it would distract drivers, but the city did not order it to be taken down. A traffic enforcement deputy was called to the scene, and he began issuing tickets.
There were a total of seven tickets issued, six for parking, including one for the sole Trump supporter at the scene.
There was one ticket for a moving violation: Porter’s horn honk.
Loy said the other tickets are not at issue: “The right to protest is not a right to violate parking laws.”
Nor, he said, is anyone being accused of targeting demonstrators for their political beliefs.
For her part, Porter said last year that she had heard other passing drivers honk their horns without getting into trouble.
“If nobody had ever blown their horn in front of the rally before, I wouldn’t have blown my horn,” Porter said last year.
David Synder is an attorney and the executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, which describes itself as dedicated to advancing free speech, open government and public participation. He is not associated with the lawsuit, but political speech, he said, “is afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.”
After reading through the eight-page complaint Tuesday, he said that if the court accepts horn honking as political expression, “there is a pretty good case to be made that the statute is over-broad.”
Similar cases in other jurisdictions, he said, have drawn mixed results.
Issa announced in January that he would not run for re-election. In April, the weekly protests outside his office came to an end.
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