Most Americans treasure their constitutional right to free speech. Very few would have ever thought this important personal freedom would have been tested on the open road, however.
Yet that's exactly what happened in a courtroom in Jackson County, Ore.
Last September, Christopher Hill was driving his commercial truck on the west side of Highway 140. In a car right behind him was a sheriff's deputy from Jackson County.
Most people would have started to slow down at this point and kept a steady pace on the road. That's not what Mr. Hill decided to do. According to Medford Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Ristow, Mr. Hill said it's "a pretty common practice for truck drivers to holler over the CB radio about law enforcement."
Mr. Hill proceeded to flash his high-beam headlights to warn other drivers. Another sheriff's deputy on the highway's east side noticed him doing this to a UPS truck. He signaled his fellow deputy, who pulled over Mr. Hill and wrote him a $260 ticket.
This traffic citation was of real concern to Mr. Hill. He apparently owns a commercial trucking company, and said, "It's kind of a big deal here for trucks to get a violation, and it goes on your records." That would be bad for his career, and bad for business.
Hence, Mr. Hill took the matter to the courts as a free-speech advocate. On March 26, Jackson County Justice Court Judge Joe Charter ruled in his favor.
Ms. Ristow wrote, "While there are laws that restrict the use of high-beam headlights, including when oncoming traffic is within 500 feet of a car, Charter wrote in his ruling that these laws are in place so other drivers aren't blinded by the bright lights."
Judge Charter ruled, "because Hill admitted he was flashing his high-beams intentionally to warn other drivers, he wasn't misusing his lights to blind them." He also acknowledged "Hill's behavior could be characterized as communication or an 'optical horn.'"
Moreover, "under the Oregon Constitution, speech and expressive conduct are broadly protected, and that laws can't restrain free expression," noted Ms. Ristow. "'If you were riding on someone's tail with your brights on — then that's a violation,' said Judge Charter. 'But Oregon has a very broad protection of expression.'"
Judge Charter had some concerns about his ruling. "I worry that people will read too much into this. I can't prejudge other cases. It will depend on the facts of the other cases." Fair enough, and his point is well taken.
Nonetheless, this important judicial decision has the potential to be a permanent litmus test for freedom of speech on the roads and highways.
We obviously don't want people to break the law. Giving drivers a warning of what's ahead will provide them with an unfair advantage (and unexpected means) of avoiding costly tickets and demerit points for traffic infractions.
Some may even warn their fellow drivers on a frequent or infrequent basis. For what it's worth, I don't flash my high beams — and I'm certainly not required to do so.
Still, should we really punish drivers for simply flashing their high beams? The United States has always respected freedom of speech more than most other countries. This particular type of "speech," in the form of flashing headlights, appears to fall under the category of free expression.
Meanwhile, giving a driver a warning of a police car or speed trap doesn't mean he will necessarily heed it or even pay attention to it. The first driver, therefore, has as much freedom to express himself as the second driver has to completely ignore this form of vehicular communication.
There's also another important point to Mr. Hill's story.
American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon director Dave Fidanque noted the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned a decision preventing drivers from honking their horns in support of the military during the first Gulf War and receiving tickets for doing so. As he told the Associated Press, "If the motive of the sheriff's deputies was, in fact, not to make the roads safer, but to raise more revenue from traffic enforcement, that would be even more reason why it should be unconstitutional."
While I don't make it a habit of quoting the ACLU, the point is valid.
If the sheriff's deputy ignored the Oregon Constitution and ticketed Mr. Hill to simply raise revenue, I think he deserves to be admonished by his superiors. In the name of free speech, of course.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.