As the old saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

That’s what came to mind when I saw reports of a group of men on the Big Island who kicked off the new year by claiming a constitutional right to drive without benefit of licenses, registration, insurance, safety checks, or the other routine requirements that all drivers deal with.

Their tiny caravan, dubbed “Freedom Ride 2016,” was a short-lived protest. Three vehicles were pulled over within minutes, according to news reports. Two men were cited and arrested, and their vehicles towed by police. A third man was cited but allowed to leave after he removed the paper plates that were covering his legal license plates.

Morning traffic on South Beretania at the Punchbowl St. intersection. 1.9.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Every driver in this Honolulu traffic jam is most certainly legally required to have a license. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

They based their actions on the belief that their right to travel cannot be restricted or limited.

They point to a series of court cases which, they say, establish that the right to travel is constitutionally protected, and that license and insurance requirements can’t be imposed on non-commercial drivers.

As long as your vehicle is not used for commercial purposes, the public’s right to travel can’t be infringed, one of the “Freedom Ride” organizers told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

The Hawaii County police took this seriously enough that they issued their own press release directly addressing the belief that the Constitution somehow protects unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

Although easily discredited, arguments like those put forward by the right-to-travel proponents are part of an industry that intends to deceive in order to cynically sell an ideology as well as a wide range of how-to manuals, workshops and seminars, and other products.

“Erroneous information has been disseminated claiming that these requirements violate the Constitutional ‘right to travel.’ That is not accurate,” the Police Pepartment said in a news release.

“The right to travel protects a citizen’s right to freely travel to other states and does not provide a fundamental right to operate a motor vehicle. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that states have the power to regulate the use of motor vehicles on their roadways.”

Unfortunately, the whole “right to travel” argument is another example of how easy it is to con gullible people into accepting crazy ideas by dressing them up with out-of-context legal references, along with lots of impressive-sounding jargon, and fine print containing lots of footnotes and references.

It also helps when the pitch reinforces ideas already popular among the audience, in this instance people who distrust all government authority.

But in this case, like in so many others, the arguments and the “evidence” are misleading at best, and patently fraudulent at worst, making the “Freedom Ride 2016” an instructive case study in how people can be sold ideas that don’t pass the smell test, much less any legal tests.

Don’t Believe All You Read

Go online and it’s easy to find anti-government websites or publications purporting to prove that driver’s licensing laws and other traffic laws are unconstitutional restrictions on the right to travel.

They all pretty much do the same thing by selectively quoting court decisions wildly out of context, turning their meanings inside out.

Many start by distinguishing “commercial” travel, which can be regulated, versus “personal” travel, which they claim to be sacrosanct.

Right-to-travel proponents are quick to selectively point to state laws regarding licensing requirements that apply to drivers of trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles. One good example claims to be a compilation of “loopholes” in state laws.

It lists laws that apply to licensing requirements for drivers of trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles. Then they simply, and falsely, say that since these specific laws don’t apply to personal vehicles, there are no licensing, insurance or other requirements that regular drivers must comply with. It’s a illogical jump into thin air, at least if you stop for even a brief moment to think about it.

And then there are the citations to court cases.

Here’s a widely quoted example  that proclaims, “NO DRIVER LICENSE REQUIRED IN THE U.S!”

And there’s “proof” offered in the form of court decisions which, it is claimed, “disprove the belief that driving is a privilege and therefore requires government approval in the form of a license.”

Fact-Checking The Claims

One thing is obvious. The authors don’t expect anyone to actually check their legal references. If you go ahead and look up the cases, they actually offer no support for the idea that driver’s licenses are somehow unconstitutional.

The first  reference is to the case of Chicago Motor Coach Company v. Chicago.

Only a single sentence is quoted: ”The use of the highway for the purpose of travel and transportation is not a mere privilege, but a common fundamental right of which the public and individuals cannot rightfully be deprived.”

This turns out to be a 1929 decision by the Illinois Supreme Court. To put it in context, this was back when the court had to remind readers that automobiles “have equal rights upon the streets with horses and carriages.”

The dispute arose when the City of Chicago tried to impose new licensing requirements on the Chicago Motor Coach Company, which was properly licensed and permitted by the Illinois Public Utilities Commission to operate a quite extensive bus system.

The legal dispute was whether Chicago could impose conditions that conflicted with the powers the Legislature had granted to the state Public Utilities Commission. The court decided that the commission had the power, and that only the Legislature could reassign powers to the city to regulate the bus system, which operated as a public utility.

Not only did the case not deal with any individual “right to travel,” it explicitly recognized that the state may certainly regulate the use of public roads and highways by adopting “reasonable rules and restrictions as to their use.”

The second case cited is Thompson v. Smith, a Virginia court case dating back to 1930. 

Again, a single sentence is quoted: ”The right of the citizen to travel upon the public highways and to transport his property thereon, either by carriage or by automobile, is not a mere privilege which a city may prohibit or permit at will, but a common law right which he has under the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The right of the government to impose licensing, registration, insurance and other requirements was never at issue in this case.

Instead, the main issue in the case was a law giving Smith, the local police chief, the discretion to deny or revoke a driver’s permit if, in the chief’s opinion, the person is “unfit” to drive. The court ruled that the unbridled discretion given the chief was improper, and declared that part of the law void.

Another Supreme Court case referred to by the Hilo “freedom riders” is known as Murdock vs. Pennsylvania. This 1943 decision considered whether the City of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, could use an anti-peddling law to restrict the religious proselytizing by Jehovah’s Witnesses, who went door to door offering their religious “Watch Tower” publications for sale.

The court, not surprisingly from today’s perspective, ruled that the law was unconstitutional when applied to the religious group. But nothing in the decision could possibly be construed as elevating to the level of a First Amendment right the act of driving without having to comply with licensing, insurance, registration, safety or other requirements.

Although easily discredited, arguments like those put forward by the right-to-travel proponents are part of an industry that intends to deceive in order to cynically sell an ideology as well as a wide range of how-to manuals, workshops and seminars, and other products. 

And the sad thing is that people who take the bait are often well-meaning folk who will end up paying a personal price for accepting the wild and unsupported claims at face value.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.