ACLU Challenges California Law Restricting Honking on First Amendment Grounds

By Yasmin Azodi, Esq. Legal Perspectives June 19, 2018

Did you know that in California, honking at slow drivers or in support of demonstrators is illegal? But fret not, The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) recent lawsuit may change that. The Gerard Fox Law Team of experienced attorneys are available to help you understand your rights when you want to use your horn to show support.


 

The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) and law firm Foley & Lardner LLP (“Foley”) have filed a lawsuit on behalf of San Diego resident Susan Porter challenging the constitutionality of section 27001 of the California Vehicle Code. This statute prohibits the use of a vehicle’s horn except for safety purposes or as part of a car alarm. The complaint, which names San Diego County Sheriff William Gore and Commissioner of California Highway Patrol Warren Stanley as Defendants, was filed on June 11, 2018.

According to the complaint, Ms. Porter attended a demonstration outside the office of Congressman Darrel Issa on October 17, 2017. Deputy sheriffs arrived and began issuing citations to various individuals at the demonstration. During this time, Ms. Porter moved her car and in doing so, drove past the protest and honked her horn in support. A deputy sheriff directed Ms. Porter to pull over and issued her a citation for violation of section 27001.

The lawsuit alleges that section 27001 is an unconstitutional violation of the right to free speech afforded by both the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution for several reasons: (1) it is an overbroad restriction on the use of a horn for speech or expression, (2) it is a content-based restriction that is not narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest, and (3) the statute burdens substantially more speech or expression than necessary to protect legitimate government interests.

It is unknown exactly what the Defendants will argue the purpose of section 27001 is and what government interests it serves. Presumably, section 27001 exists to control noise level and to ensure drivers and pedestrians are not distracted, and therefore endangered, by unnecessary or prolonged honking.

The ACLU and Foley contend that noise control and public safety can be achieved with a narrower law that does not unconstitutionally burden or restrict free speech. They will likely argue that the statute as written prohibits more than just political speech and expression, considering it forbids use of a horn for most things that an average driver uses their horn for. For example, the statute prohibits use of the horn to express dissatisfaction with another driver and for non-safety related communication with other drivers or pedestrians. The ACLU and Foley argue that section 27001 unconstitutionally bars drivers’ ability to engage in such expressive conduct. 

Proponents of section 27001 argue that the law as written is necessary to control noise level in high-traffic areas and to ensure drivers and pedestrians are not distracted or endangered. A narrower law which allows, for example, honking for additional specified purposes or for short periods may subvert these legitimate purposes.

The case is in its early stages, with no answer having been filed by Defendants yet. However, this will undoubtedly be a case to watch for those interested in constitutional law and for California drivers looking to honk their horns more freely.

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