A federal appeals court says honking isn’t First Amendment–protected activity. There’s no constitutional right to honk your car horn, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The case involves Susan Porter, who repeatedly honked her car horn while driving past protesters in California in 2017. A deputy with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office issued Porter a ticket, saying she had violated a state law against misuse of car horns.
Porter pushed back, filing a federal lawsuit in 2018. In it, she alleged that honking her horn in solidarity with the protesters was protected First Amendment activity and that the California law used to ticket her—which says prohibits using a car horn except “when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation” or when used “as a theft alarm system”—was unconstitutional.
A U.S. district court ruled against Porter, and now the 9th Circuit has upheld that lower court’s ruling. For “the horn to serve its intended purpose as a warning device, it must not be used indiscriminately,” wrote Judge Michelle Friedland for the majority.
But 9th Circuit judge Marsha Berzon thinks her colleagues got it wrong. In her dissent, Berzon noted that California cops are taught to use discretion when enforcing the horn-honking law, which could lead to selective (and discriminatory) enforcement. And Berzon scoffed at the idea that Porter honking while driving past a protest would be confused for anything but political speech.
“A political protest is designed to be noticed,” wrote Berzon. “Political honking was hardly a significant source of noise or distraction in that environment. There is no basis for supposing that anyone was confused or distracted by the honking. Instead, Porter’s honking was understood as political expression by the protesters, who cheered in response.”