Flashing Headlights Is Free Speech -- And Also Neighborly ​

Are you one of those selfish pricks who knows there's a speed trap up ahead, but doesn't flash your lights to warn fellow motorists? Well, now you don't have to be. A court ruled that flashing your headlights, even to warn of stealthily hidden law enforcement, is protected speech.

So, get out there and help a brother out...

Ellisville, MO, was trying to prosecute drivers who warned others of impending speed traps by flashing their headlights. Apparently, the "show me" state doesn't mean "show me where the po-po are at." But a federal judge issued an injunction against the town, stopping the prosecution of lookout drivers who help everybody drive as fast as possible without detection.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey ruled that using your headlights to communicate is protected speech, even if you are using that speech to point out speed traps.

This makes sense. Think about it, you can say "5-0, 5-0," to warn drug-using friends of an approaching beat cop. This really isn't any different. You can even flip people the bird from your car. It's on the cops to catch people doing illegal activity; citizens are allowed to report what they know. In the Missouri case, the town was prosecuting people who were not speeding just because they were warning others about upcoming speed traps.

The ACLU sued on behalf of ticketed drivers. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

ACLU Legal Director Tony Rothert said Monday that it was the first federal court ruling on the issue anywhere in the country. "It is legal in Missouri to communicate in this manner," he said, "and detaining, ticketing or arresting someone for the content of their speech is illegal."...

The ACLU sued on behalf of [drivers] last year, saying that drivers using their headlights to communicate about a speed trap — or another reason to proceed with caution — are protected by the First Amendment.

The ACLU hopes that this is a warning to other towns who might think of stopping motorists for their headlight communication.

Some argued that the drivers were engaging in "obstruction of justice," but that seems to be the entirely wrong way of looking at this. If you are caught speeding, and a passing motorist uses his or her car to block — or "obstruct" — the cops so you can get away, that's obstruction of justice. Using your headlights to blind police cruisers so they can't see the friend speeding by you is obstruction of justice.

Flashing your headlights to say "hey, cops up ahead" is just speech — really helpful speech if you are a lead foot in need of some warning.