WASHINGTON, May 11, 2014 − Clearly, and appropriately, there are limits on our right to free speech. Shouting “fire” in a movie theater immediately comes to mind as one example of prohibited speech.
States routinely determine that there are also limits on what we put on our car’s license plates. Courts, however, often overturn states’ decisions as being unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, or because the state’s law is overly vague.
In 1982, Frank Nuessel, in a paper for the University of Louisville, wrote that “The highly visible language of personalized plates is subject to routine and often vigorous censorship by officials of the state agency which is charged by overseeing their dissemination.” He couldn’t be more correct. The evidence is seen in many cases brought to court by those suing to get the plate they want after their state said “no.”
“No” responses are often arbitrary and reflect the personal taste of one or more “powerful” people who are acting, they would tell you, to protect public morals and decency.
Censure in this area often occurs when the language in question involves sex. Arbitrariness is the rule of the day. Here are some examples of acceptable plates:
Complicating matters further, the subjective nature of the process, in all states, includes the ability of a motor vehicle clerk to deny a plate renewal even if the plate had already been approved.
“No” decisions about what you can put on your license plates is a form of prior restraint and probably is a violation of First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech. Thus, our nation’s judges decide these issues.
In 2012 a Federal North Carolina judge ruled a plan to offer license plates with a pro-life background was unconstitutional because there was no pro-choice alternative. The ruling found that the state’s plan would favor one political viewpoint over another.
Recently, New Hampshire’s highest court ruled that a man is free to place his belief that police officers lie on his license plate. David Montenegro is thus able to have a plate that reads COPSLIE. New Hampshire law prohibits vanity plates that “a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste.” But Montenegro won his case on the strength of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union’s argument that the law is unconstitutionally vague and that it gave too much discretion to a person behind a DMV counter.
The list of incidents goes on, but often the outcomes seem decidedly inconsistent. Placing obscene language on license plates is often disallowed. Somehow though, F-IT in Oklahoma, LOL WTF in Virginia and DUDE WTF in Florida are being used.
In Indiana, HATER was approved, but HATERS was not. Indiana also denied SXY while it approved BIGGSXY. A Marion, Indiana Superior Court Judge decided that these were arbitrary and unexplainable actions, and thus unconstitutional. Rodney Vawter, a Greenfield police officer was pleased and then able to obtain OINK as his plate.
In 2007, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators conducted a nationwide survey and found that there are 9.7 million vehicles with personalized vanity license plates. Virginia had the highest “penetration rate” with 16.19% of its cars having vanity plates. New Hampshire was second with 13.99%, and Texas was the lowest, with only .5% of its people feeling a need to “talk” on their license plates.
Every state has a list of banned words, phrases or letter/number combinations. New York, for example, bans FDNY and NYPD and GOD, among others.
In Florida, a man’s ATHEIST plate was revoked, but later allowed. In Virginia, a woman lost her plate HAISSEM (messiah spelled backwards). In South Dakota, a woman had to fight to keep MPEACHW (meaning impeach W). In New Jersey, there are 1085 words you cannot use. BARRF, BADAZZ and BOOB are among them. SCRUE U2 was disallowed in Ohio.
In Georgia, insults, anatomical descriptions, drugs, and highly personal invitations usually are rejected. Yet U IDIOT was approved. In the same state, religious, philosophical and political expressions are most often disallowed as well, examples of such being GODROCKS, GODWHO, ILUVGUNS, and GAYPWR. So why did Georgia approve GOD4EVR, GUNLUV, and GAYGAY?
“To pass legal muster, government restrictions on free speech must be precise,” said Cynthia Counts, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in freedom of speech issues. “Allowing S0SEXY1 while banning MSSEXI shows Georgia is not precise.”
Georgia’s Vicki Lambert, their state’s gatekeeper, says that the law offers little guidance, noting that since 1968, when the state first started selling vanity plates, community standards have changed. Further, she relates since that time, dozens of different department employees have reviewed tag applications, and all of them have different opinions about obscenity, race, religion and what it means to ridicule. Lambert says she understands that Georgia residents have a right to free speech. But her department must balance that against not subjecting others to a disgusting license plate while sitting in traffic on Interstate 75.
A big problem, says Lambert, is grasping the sometimes hidden meaning of the proposed plate. She says there is an art to understanding what is meant. The number eight often means hate. It can also mean ate. Her department decided W8NGOD means “wait on God.”
Vanity plates provide states with financial benefits. In 2011-2012 Georgia collected nearly $2.3 million from $35.00 plates. Bruce Brown, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in free speech issues, says the plates may prove more trouble than they’re worth. “The headache is making constitutional decisions about what can be displayed and what can’t be. It’s too hard to do. They don’t appear like they’re doing it right now,” he says.
States with similar issues have been sued and have lost. The losing states are forced to make changes, and taxpayers, of course, are stuck with the legal tab. But the legal point/counterpoint continues.
In the end, we all enjoy trying to interpret plates when we are stuck in traffic. Some make us laugh. Some prove more bewildering. For example, why, one wonders, would a woman in Michigan want DUMBLND on her tags? IFARTED in New Hampshire also gets us shaking our heads. MOBSTER in Tennessee seems to be in the wrong state, while Y SO SRS in Virginia probably says it all for most of us.
One final note: It is probably true that police recognize you more quickly if you have a vanity plate. Just saying…
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
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