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Federal appeals panel hears dispute over 'Shthpns' license plate

By The Associated Press

04.04.01

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NEW YORK — An appeals court is deciding whether Vermont should have raised a stink about vanity license plates bearing a message that closely resembles a bumper sticker maxim containing a four-letter word.

The legal battle began after the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles said "Shthpns" could not happen on the license plate of Paula Perry's Ford pickup. The state issued her the plates, but later confiscated them.

"Depending on how you read it, you could read it to say, 'shout happiness' and on a day like today you could really feel that way," Perry's lawyer, David Putter, argued in court yesterday, a sunny day in Manhattan.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the case. Perry's lawyers say the confiscation violated the First Amendment. The state argues the plates violated a specific policy against the four-letter word.

"I've seen a lot of interesting ones," observed Judge James L. Oakes, a former Vermont attorney general. "True, you can buy a bumper sticker that says the same thing and spells it out but 'Shthpns' is offensive to many people."

Perry received the plates on July 10, 1997, and used them for more than a year.

Then, the Department of Motor Vehicles demanded the plates back, saying in a letter it had a right to do so because the commissioner "may refuse to honor any request that might be offensive or confusing to the general public."

An administrative law judge for the state eventually restored the plates, concluding the department did not follow its own procedures in taking them away. Perry then sued the state for damages.

A lower court judge threw out the case, siding with Vermont, and it moved to the appeals court.

Bridget Asay, an assistant attorney general in Vermont, said the state did not discriminate against Perry, a former investigator for the civil rights division of Vermont's attorney general's office.

"License plates travel on cars all over the state," she said. "They're very distinctly associated with the state. They have the name of the state and the motto right on the plate and they're used by the state for an official purpose."

She said Vermont decided it did not want to participate in Perry's message.

"We think this is reasonable given the fact plates are displayed to anyone, including unwilling viewers in the state," she said.

Putter says there was nothing profane about the plates. The state allows plates with the words "Cowpies," "Pooper," "Toot" and "Shtrbug," he said.

"The subject matter it was intended to convey was that life involves unexpected, untoward events," Putter said in court papers. "The highways of Vermont are not a public school classroom. Nor is Perry's plate profane."

Update

'Shthpns' license plate panned by federal appeals court
2nd Circuit says Vermont hasnít designated vanity plates as public forum.  10.19.01

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