Is horn honking protected free speech? The Supreme Court to decide

Did you know that in some states a friendly tap on the car horn celebrating a sports team or just for saying “I’m here” or “goodbye”, can be illegal? The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide on an odd car-related case: whether honking a car horn as a show of support is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The case began in 2017, when 69-year-old Susan Porter of Oceanside, California, honked to show solidarity with protesters outside the office of her local congressman. She was immediately issued a ticket by a sheriff’s deputy. 

“He said, ‘illegal use of horn’ and gave me the ticket,” Porter told USA Today

The California vehicle code states that the only two legal uses of a car horn are to give an audible warning to another driver, and as part of an anti-theft device. However, the law is rarely enforced and the practice of honking situations that fall outside those narrow definitions is widespread. In fact, Porter’s case was dismissed in California’s traffic court when the deputy issuing the ticket failed to appear.

However, Porter decided to file a civil suit, arguing that the use of a car horn should be protected free speech under the First Amendment. Both a California District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against Porter in the state of California’s favor, leaving Porter no where to appeal but the highest court in the land.

In the San Diego Tribune Porter’s lead attorneys, Thaila Sundaresan and Andrew Row, argued that presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump both encouraged their supporters to honk during their 2020 campaigns, which were run during COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“The pandemic showed that when restrictions are placed on gatherings, people use cars as extensions of themselves,” Row told the Tribune

. This argument also makes a good case for manual transmissions, but we digress.

The National Constitution Center’s blog cites similar cases that have been decided in other states. In Montana and Washington in 1998 and 2001, respectively, state Supreme Courts decided against the honker in two cases where horns were used to show objection to neighbors during disagreements. In 1992 in Oregon, a case similar to Porter’s was decided in the favor of protesters who honked during anti-Gulf War demonstrations. 

The California case, Porter v. Martinez, will be part of the docket during the Supreme Court’s session starting November 27.