Is it your First Amendment right to honk your horn in America? A look at the law in many states says no, but one California woman hopes to change that by challenging her ticket for illegal horn use to the US Supreme Court with a civil suit.
Susan Porter received the citation after passing a political rally in 2017 and honking her horn. The sheriff’s deputy who issued it did not show up in traffic court, leading to its dismissal, but Porter filed the civil suit against the state in 2018 in hopes of changing the law.
A district court ruled against her in 2021, but she appealed in 2022. She lost again earlier this year when the appellate court sided with the state even though it agreed that California’s law did chill her “expressive activity.” Still, it ultimately ruled that the state’s interest in traffic safety mattered more.
During the appeal, California Highway Patrol Sgt. William Beck, a state witness, said that excessive honking could create dangerous situations by distracting other drivers. However, Beck couldn’t provide an example of such a case where a car’s horn caused an accident, according to the Monterey Herald.
But California’s law is quite clear on proper horn etiquette. Section 27001 states:
(a) The driver of a motor vehicle when reasonably necessary to insure [sic] safe operation shall give audible warning with his horn.
(b) The horn shall not otherwise be used, except as a theft alarm system which operates as specified in Article 13 (commencing with Section 28085) of this chapter.
That’s pretty cut and dry, and similarly worded laws are on the books in Michigan, Florida, Virginia, and most of the country. Many local municipalities in the US have also enacted equivalent regulations, but enforcement is often inconsistent.
Porter still has a long road ahead of her. The US Supreme Court receives 7,000 to 8,000 petitions per term, with the Court granting to hear oral arguments in about 80 cases. The Supreme Court has in the past expanded First Amendment protections to non-speech actions, like wearing armbands and political campaign contributions. Maybe horn-honking will soon join that list.