Cars, Free Speech, Police

Free Speech Potpourri: Begging Might Not Be Speech, But Flashing Your ‘Headlights’ Certainly Is!

We’ve got two unrelated First Amendment issues floating around today that I’m mashing into one post, because it is my right to do so.

We all know that money is speech. How we got to the point where money is worth just as much speech as talking is a manner of some contention (see Jeff Toobin’s New Yorker piece and Tom Goldstein’s response), but the question is what other things that don’t involve people saying anything can also be construed as “speech.”

Now Mitt Romney will tell you that money is speech and “corporations are people, my friend.” Fair enough. But I’m not sure he’d defend the free speech rights of people who don’t have any money so they’re asking for it on the streets of Chicago.

And I have no idea how he’d respond if you asked him if cars are people that can flash each other under the protection of the First Amendment….

Let’s start with the serious one first. The WSJ Law Blog reports that panhandlers in Chicago are suing the city because they’ve been pushed out of high-end areas and harassed by the cops.

Now, in general, beggars being hounded by 5-0 is about as newsworthy as a shark swallowing a minnow. Panhandlers are the natural prey of the police.

But in our post-Citizens United world, it’s a little strange that it’s totally okay that money is treated as speech, but asking for money can be curtailed. And it’s also hard to imagine that Chicago really needs more of a crackdown on beggars. Already, they’re barely allowed to look you in the eye. From the WSJ Law Blog:

Chicago does prohibit “aggressive panhandling,” which a 2004 ordinance defines as asking people for money within a certain distance of an ATM, bus stop, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, parked or stopped vehicles and bank entrances. It also prevents touching a person being solicited, blocking their path, following them, or using abusive language.

I wish bundlers for political candidates had to follow these kinds of rules.

Well, nobody likes people who ask for money, while people who spend money run our politics, so I’m sure that somehow the panhandlers will get screwed, and the cops will still be able to bully them.

But at least the police can’t prevent you from flashing your headlights. A Florida judge ruled that flashing headlights was an acceptable way of warning other citizens that a speed trap lies up ahead. Flashing headlights is also an acceptable way to get beads in New Orleans or advertise that a lovely snap… oh, wait, we’re talking about car headlights. Yes, well, of course.

Still, it’s free speech. The headlights. On the road.

If you can still warn your fellow travelers of speed traps, free speech isn’t quite dead, even if you don’t have enough money to buy your speech the way the pros do.

Chicago Panhandlers File First Amendment Lawsuit [WSJ Law Blog]
Judge: flashing headlights to warn of speed trap is protected speech [Overlawyered]
A Florida Judge Ruled That Flashing Your Headlights Is Free Speech [Jalopnick]

(hidden for your protection)

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