Supreme Court Rejects Free Speech Challenge to California Honking Law

California woman Susan Porter was ticketed for honking her car’s horn at a political protest in 2017.
Supreme Court Rejects Free Speech Challenge to California Honking Law
The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 8, 2024. (Julia Nikhinson/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court decided on Feb. 26 to reject a case about whether honking a car horn is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

Although Americans have long sounded vehicle horns to express themselves politically, many states, including California, forbid honking the horn on one’s automobile except to warn of a safety hazard. Officials say hitting the horn excessively reduces the effectiveness of honking as a means of signaling danger or facilitating the flow of traffic.

The justices announced in an unsigned order that they turned away the petition for certiorari, or review, in Porter v. Martinez. There was no recorded dissent, and the justices did not explain their decision. The case would have moved forward to the oral arguments stage if at least four of the nine justices had voted to grant the petition.

Drivers honked their horns during the 2020 election cycle, an act that both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump “have recognized ... as a form of political expression,” the petition filed in the case states.

“The car horn is the sound of democracy in action,” the document reads.

At a drive-in rally, President Biden, then a candidate, told his supporters: “Honk if you want America to lead again. Honk if you want America to trust each other again. Honk if you want to be united again.”

In May 2020, a convoy of truckers honked their horns to protest the government’s trade policies and in the process interrupted a speech President Trump was delivering in the Rose Garden of the White House. President Trump called out to the truckers, saying they were with him “all the way” and that the honking was “a sign of love.”

“Since the dawn of the automobile at the turn of the twentieth century, Americans of all political persuasions have honked their cars’ horns to express their support or displeasure and add their voice to the political and civic dialogue of this country,” the petition reads. “Every day across this country, motorists use their vehicles’ horns to express themselves when passing roadside picket lines, demonstrations, and protests.”

Susan Porter was ticketed by a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy for violating a state law about misusing car horns in 2017. She faced a fine of up to $238.

The state said 69-year-old Ms. Porter was pulled over for honking her horn as many as 15 times in support of protests outside the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Mr. Issa was co-founder of Directed Electronics, which manufactures Viper car alarms.

Section 27001 of the California Vehicle Code states, “The driver of a motor vehicle when reasonably necessary to ensure safe operation shall give audible warning with his horn ... The horn shall not otherwise be used, except as a theft alarm system.”

She showed up for traffic court on Dec. 12, 2017, but the citation was dismissed because the issuing sheriff’s deputy failed to appear. Despite that, Ms. Porter sued in federal court in mid-2018, arguing that the California law violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Gonzalo Curiel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California ruled against Ms. Porter on Feb. 5, 2021. Judge Curiel was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012.

The judge found that the state law passed constitutional muster and was “an appropriate regulation on the time, place, or manner of the protected speech and expression ... [and was] narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, namely traffic safety and noise pollution.”

The law “leaves open ample alternative channels for communication.”

A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling. Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon, who was appointed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, dissented.

“There is no evidence in the record (or elsewhere, as far as I can determine) that such political expressive horn use jeopardizes traffic safety or frustrates noise control,” she wrote.

The state law “prohibits core expressive conduct, and is therefore unconstitutional in that respect.”

In her petition, Ms. Porter argued that the Ninth Circuit majority erred.

“The government primarily justified its law by reference to its interest in traffic safety. However, the government admitted that it knows of not one accident caused or threatened by non-warning honking,” the petition reads.

Although several courts of appeal “have struck down blanket bans on expressive conduct or speech on or near public roadways,” the Ninth Circuit went in the opposite direction.

Ms. Porter’s co-counsel, David Loy of the First Amendment Coalition, based in San Rafael, California, previously weighed in on the case.

Mr. Loy said he was “shocked that state law prohibits a common and widespread means of political, social, and personal expression.”

“The government should not be stifling a critical form of expression, especially when public health restrictions can curtail other means of assembly and protest, as we’ve sometimes seen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.