Free Speech and the Policeby Logan Albright
Feb. 16, 2014
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The traffic cop stands alone as one of the most unpleasant and unnecessary forms of law enforcement. Under the halfhearted guise of protecting public safety – a pretense that no one really buys into – these government agents spend most of their time extracting revenue from motorists for violating arbitrary and unscientific standards, and who are for the most part posing no significant risk to anyone.
Still, it is one thing when a passing policeman happens to witness a traffic violation and takes action to correct it, and quite another when he lays a deliberate trap to catch unwary drivers – a sneaky and, it seems to me, rather unsporting way of conducting the business of law enforcement.
Even worse, however, is when the same officers lying in wait to spring one of these speed traps attempt to penalize an honest citizen who, apart from following the law himself, encouraged others to do the same. This was the situation in Missouri when good Samaritan Michael Elli faced a fine of $1000 for flashing his headlights in order to warn drivers of an upcoming speed trap.
It's a little baffling how, in any sense, such an action could possibly be considered a crime. After all, the effect of Elli's actions was undoubtedly to reduce speeding, as drivers slowed to avoid getting ticketed by police. If the purpose of speed limits is to promote safety, then surely what Elli did must be considered a public service, mustn't it?
Of course, the existence of such a fine indicates in no uncertain terms that public safety is not, in fact, the goal behind most traffic laws. The only explanation for why police should be upset about the warning is that their department was deprived of the revenue from ticketing those caught in the speed trap. Speed traps have nothing to do with making us safer, and everything to do with taking our money.
Thankfully, a federal judge has since ruled that Elli's punishment cannot legally be enforced. After all, the only action the man engaged in was communicating information to others, a form of speech protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It is unquestionably the right call, but the fact that it even had to be made is troubling in itself. In a less enlightened case, last year, a man was sentenced to eight months in prison for teaching people how to beat polygraph tests, even though they are a grossly flawed form of evidence not admissible in any court of law.
The fact that law enforcement officials think it is appropriate, not only to entrap people for minor traffic violations that infringe upon the rights of no one, but to forcefully punish a man for actually reducing criminal activity, is a sad commentary on the true agenda of our supposed protectors.
More knowledge is always in the interests of freedom, and speech, whether it be expressed verbally, through writing, over the internet or even in the form of flashing lights, is how knowledge is spread. We should always be highly suspicious of any efforts by the state to limit speech, and by extension the spread of knowledge.
The function of law enforcement – it's only proper function – is the protection of individual rights. When the law is used to harass, to bully, to squash the spread of information and to extract money from the citizenry so that the government can spend it, it ceases to be about protection and becomes instead a tool of oppression.
Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.