Ok… Before you read this column thinking it’s about someone walking down the street in a trench coat, think again. It’s not that kind of “flashing.” Instead, I’m talking about the warning that drivers sometimes pass along to other drivers that there is a police officer ahead. The question that’s being asked is whether that action is legal. Is flashing your headlights to another driver an act of free speech? That’s what one Florida man is about to find out.
As reported in FloridaToday.com, Erich Campbell was ticketed for warning others of a speedtrap on a Florida road near the Tampa International Airport.
Late last month, the Land O’Lakes resident filed a class-
action lawsuit in Tallahassee against the FHP and other Sunshine State traffic-enforcement agencies. He seeks an injunction barring law enforcement from issuing headlight-flash tickets, plus refunds and civil damages for previously cited motorists. Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, said he has not heard of a similar lawsuit in the country.
Campbell’s lawyer, J. Marc Jones, said, “It’s not about traffic. This is about government going too far, the intentional misapplication of a statute solely to produce money. That’s just wrong.”
David Hudson Jr., a scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said motorists previously have challenged headlight-flashing tickets in New Jersey, Ohio and Tennessee, but those were individual cases, rather than the statewide class-action lawsuit in Florida.
“The First Amendment protects all sorts of nonverbal conduct, it protects more than the spoken or printed word,” Hudson Jr. said. “Courts have found that a wide variety of actions — such as honking one’s horn or flashing one’s headlights — are forms of communication under the First Amendment.”
The story was also covered by WTVA.com in Mississippi. Tupelo Police Sgt. Doug Mansell is quoted as saying that he doesn’t believe there is a law against people “just flashing their headlights.” However, Tupelo resident Daniel Cruise said, “I was riding down a road, [had] just gone through a roadblock, and [was] trying to let an oncoming person know that a roadblock was ahead. I flashed on a [police officer] instead. The police [officer] pulled me over and gave me a ticket for it.”
Nathan Koppel of the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog was told by Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, that heading flashing is like a “lookout on a street corner warning a dope dealer” about a police officer. Roberts added, “That’s an extreme example, but the fact is that anyone breaking a speeding limit is breaking the law and presents a danger to people around them.”
So what do you think? Is flashing your headlights free speech? Or is it aiding and abetting a criminal behavior?