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Supreme Court declines to decide if states may ticket drivers for honking a horn

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When she honked her car horn during a protest in 2017, Susan Porter said the familiar sound was a form of speech that should be protected by the First Amendment.

Without comment, the Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear it.

The high court brushed aside an appeal from the Californian, who received a ticket after beeping to support a group that had gathered outside her congressman's office. Though the ticket was later dismissed, Porter argued that the anti-honking law itself is unconstitutional.

"The car horn is the sound of democracy in action," Porter's attorneys told the Supreme Court in their appeal.

Porter's attorneys at the First Amendment Coalition said that beeping a car horn can be protected speech in many circumstances, such as when drivers are celebrating a World Series win or are indicating support for a candidate waving signs on the side of the road during the morning rush hour.

During the 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden frequently held "drive-in" rallies because of the Covid-19 pandemic where applause was often replaced with the sound of blaring car horns.

Some 41 states, including California, have laws that limit the use of a car horn to traffic situations. Maine, for instance, bars any "unnecessary" use of a horn. Oregon prohibits beeping for anything other than giving "reasonable warning." The laws are different from noise ordinances, which may ban honking at certain times and places. The prohibitions at issue in the appeal are categorical, barring the practice everywhere.

The Supreme Court has ruled that protected speech can include more than spoken word. In 1969, for instance, the court ruled that black arm bands worn by students in protest of the Vietnam War were protected by the First Amendment.

But California officials said the anti-honking law was "justified by an important interest in traffic safety," ensuring other drivers aren't distracted and cause accident. Besides, the state said, Porter's ticket was ultimately dismissed when the sheriff's deputy who handed it to her failed to show at her court hearing. It's not clear how aggressively the law itself is enforced.

A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided against Porter last year. A 2-1 majority found that beeping a car horn can be expressive conduct but that the state's law was justified by traffic safety implications.

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