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    Jim Hawkins: Headlight flashing falls under free speech

    By Jim Hawkins -

    “The fact that we’re protected under that Constitution in exercising the right of free speech, it’s a wonderful thing. You’ve got to come from somewhere else to realize how valuable it is.” — Pat Oliphant, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist.

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects five important rights:

    • freedom of religion.

    • freedom of speech.

    • freedom of the press.

    • freedom of assembly.

    • freedom to petition the government to right wrongs.

    A Missouri federal court ruled in 2014 that drivers have a First Amendment right of free speech to flash their headlights and warn other drivers of nearby police or radar use.

    Q. What were the facts that led to this ruling?

    A driver in Ellisville, Missouri was pulled over in 2012 and ticketed for flashing his headlights. The driver was charged with illegally warning other motorists that police were conducting radar speed checks ahead.

    The city had an ordinance that set a $1,000 fine for headlight flashing that interfered with police operations.

    The city dropped the ticket, but the ACLU sued the city in federal court and challenged the ordinance, claiming it violated drivers’ federal constitutional rights of free speech.

    Q. What happened in federal court?

    The federal court judge first issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the anti-headlight-flashing ordinance while the case was being decided.

    The federal judge ruled that flashing one’s headlights amounts to free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, because headlight-flashing “sends a message to bring one’s driving in conformity with the law – whether it be by slowing down, turning on one’s own headlamps at dusk or in the rain or proceeding with caution.” The preliminary injunction became permanent by federal court order later in 2014.

    Q. Why is this Missouri federal court ruling significant here in Tennessee?

    This ruling stands for the principle that if any city, county or state creates an ordinance or law that conflicts with our federal rights under the U.S. Constitution, then such ordinance or law should be ruled unconstitutional and struck down.

    Jim Hawkins is a general practice and public interest law attorney based in Gallatin. This column represents legal information, and is not intended to take the place of legal advice. All cases are different and need individual attention. Consult with a private attorney of your choice to review the facts and law specific to your case. To suggest future column topics, call 615-452-9200.

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