On speeding, free speech and youthful mistakes

September 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2015

A recent Gawker post was headlined “Court Affirms Your Right to Scrawl ‘Fuck Your Shitty Town’ on Speeding Tickets Received in Shitty Towns.” The only reason I clicked on the link was because I happened to notice the name of the town, which appeared on the Gawker home page in the image of the parking ticket on which profanity had been written: Liberty, N.Y.

Before I mention why that place holds significance for me, let’s attend to the Gawker writeup by Jay Hathaway. A Connecticut man cited for traveling at 82 miles per hour in a zone with a speed limit of 65 defaced the ticket that he mailed to the town court when he paid his fine. The court declined to accept the payment, summoned the motorist to appear before it in person and arrested him on a charge of aggravated harassment. The New York Civil Liberties Union got involved and helped get the charge dismissed thanks to free-expression rights established by the First Amendment.

I don’t recommend speeding, and I don’t recommend writing obscenities on official documents; that behavior strikes me as immature. But such behavior is covered by the wide shield that our constitution affords to many kinds of speech and writing.

The reason I mention this at all is because in the summer of the year nineteen-fumphty-fumph, yours truly was cited for speeding in the town of Liberty. I don’t remember if I was going 82 or faster or slower, and I’m not sure if the speed limit on that stretch of interstate highway was 65 or 55 miles per hour. (The latter was the maximum speed for several years throughout much of the nation.)

But yes, I was speeding. Worse, I was doing so in entirely the wrong circumstances. I was driving an old Dodge Omni that, if memory serves, didn’t even have FM radio. The radio isn’t germane to the car’s handling, of course, but trust me — the car was not built for pushing the envelope. Also, it was raining rather heavily at the time the trooper pulled me over. Speeding in any weather conditions is unsafe; speeding in those weather conditions is incredibly hazardous.

Being ticketed was a huge, embarrassing hassle. I had a big to-do with my parents, especially my dad, who ended up hiring a lawyer; both he and the attorney accompanied when the court heard my case in Liberty. The ticket hung over my head for weeks and made me miserable.

But you know what? I was 20 years old at the time, about to start my sophomore year of college. Part of me knew that speeding in those conditions was stupid and reckless; part of me, in fact, was grateful that the trooper stopped me.

And I’ve learned from my mistakes. If memory serves, I’ve been pulled over for speeding just three times in my life — that time on the rainy highway outside of Liberty, one night about 10 years later somewhere around Ithaca, N.Y., and one afternoon about 10 years ago on an empty rural stretch of U.S. 1 in Franklin County, N.C., when I was en route to an outdoor screening of Batman Begins.

Well, anyway. This trip through memory lane has been brought to you by Gawker, the Constitution and civil rights. As always, thanks for reading!

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