Flip off: All (protected) speech may not be for everyone.

Flip off: All (protected) speech may not be for everyone.

Where does protected speech end and obstruction of justice begin?

That has been on my mind since the 1980s, when I would regularly drive the many hundreds of miles of the New York State Thruway system.

It was not uncommon then (and probably the same today) that you would see State Trooper vehicles parked on a grassy berm, with a radar gun trained on oncoming traffic.

If you were fortunate enough, that radar gun was pointed the other way, aimed toward the opposite lane of vehicles. And so you, the lucky, were presented with a question: Should you flash your high-beams at the cars headed toward you, warning them that a speed trap was around the next bend?

If conditions were right (i.e., no massive curves that made oncoming cars invisible), I almost always opted to flash my lights. (Judge how you may.)

Please don’t remind me that speed may contribute to accidents and worse; I’m aware of that. But on most modern freeways (even in the 1980s) engineered for substantial speeds, 55 mph was a drowsy punishment. It is simply too easy to drift above that limit. And the costs associated with a ticket (including insurance costs) were (and are) substantial.

Back then, it was very common for many drivers to use their own headlights in aid of oncoming drivers. Especially appreciative appeared to be the semi-truck drivers, who would flash their thanks back to you.

Early social media, I suppose you could call it.

Were the troopers pleased at our community communication? Probably not. But they appeared to know what the First Amendment meant.

More recently, some police officers have been responding to headlight behavior with anger and the heavy hand of the law. Here is a story about a man arrested for obstruction of justice for flashing his lights as a warning.

The story opens:

“Missouri resident Michael Elli wanted to let others on the road know to slow down because they were about to drive into a speed trap, so he did what many kindhearted souls do: He flashed his headlights as a warning.”

“Police didn’t take at all kindly to warnings of this 21st century Paul Revere. They flashed him a ticket of his very own for obstruction of justice. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case, but Mr. Elli has now filed a class action lawsuit against the city because he says that the city retaliates against drivers who exercise their right to free speech–and that the government is trying to prevent it because it doesn’t like the message.”

Maybe the arrest came because so few people will flash oncoming drivers these days. My own unscientific poll of colleagues found that a majority did not even know what the practice meant. So if people are unaware of the flash’s meaning, why would they participate?

So perhaps Mr. Elli is one of the few remaining in that helpful herd. Whereas in years past police would have had to cite hundreds of drivers for the practice (and so wouldn’t), they now see the civic activity rarely, and so feel empowered to smite it.

But how different is Mr. Elli’s behavior, really, than that of some mainstream news organizations?

Every day, the Tucson Sentinel updates its online page of “Radar Van Locations.” You can see a screen-shot below; it’s very detailed. I doubt police like that page, but they appear to understand that it is protected by the First Amendment. How is the activity of a sole driver any different?

Radar Van Locations Tucson Sentinel

“Radar Van Locations” via the online Tucson Sentinel.

Finally, here is an indication that communications attitudes may be changing—when it comes to flipping off a police officer.

“A police officer can’t pull you over and arrest you just because you gave him the finger, a federal appeals court declared Thursday. In a 14-page opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that the ‘ancient gesture of insult is not the basis for a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or impending criminal activity.’”

The man had been cited for “disorderly conduct.”

Call me old-school, but I must say activity like that is pretty distasteful. Police have a very difficult job, and it cannot always be fun being the professional authority figure. But the court’s reasoning may be sound.

It is interesting that the middle-finger incident occurred when the driver saw a police officer holding a radar gun. (And I chuckled at the fact that the charges were dismissed on “speedy trial grounds.” Get it?) That was the extent of their interaction, but radar may tend to have that effect on people; it just seems, I don’t know, unfair somehow (I know, that’s not a legal basis, but a court sitting in equity would get it!)

Would the police have cited the driver if he had flipped off an unmanned radar camera? (That must happen dozens of times every day.)

What do you think? Do people have a constitutional right to convey information to their fellows, as long as they do not otherwise interfere with police activities?

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