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The GR8 debate over vanity license plates

Inside the First Amendment

By Kenneth A. Paulson
Senior vice president, the Freedom Forum
Executive director, First Amendment Center

08.26.01

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Express yourself in seven letters or less.

That's the challenge, of course, for anyone trying to convey an idea through vanity license plates. Allowing drivers to compose their own license-plate messages is a significant source of revenue for states, but it's also emerging as a significant source of litigation.

  • Last October, the State Appeals Court in Oregon upheld a Driver and Motor Vehicles Services regulation that bans references to alcohol, tobacco or drugs. That meant a retired wine dealer couldn't use vanity plates reading "VINO," "INVINO" or "WINE."

  • The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state of Missouri to reissue a license plate with the words "ARYAN-1" after the judges found the state law to be unconstitutionally overbroad. That law banned license plates that "are contrary to public policy." The state of Missouri argued that other drivers might react violently to the Aryan reference, but the courts said the state could not limit free speech merely because others might be provoked by it.

  • In Vermont last month, the headmaster of a Christian school filed suit after the state refused to issue "ROMANS5" as a license plate. Department regulations bar references to "race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliations."

  • In another Vermont case, an appeals court in New York is considering whether the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles erred when it refused to let a driver keep a license with the phrase "SHTHPNS." The Department of Motor Vehicles had demanded the return of the plate on the grounds that the plate would be offensive to the general public. The driver's lawyer creatively argued that the letters could be read in different ways. "Depending upon how you read it, you could read it to say, "Shout Happiness," and on a day like today you could really feel that way," David Putter argued, according to the Associated Press.

  • In Tennessee, a reserve officer with the Knox County Sheriff's Department was ordered to turn in his "GLOCKEM" license plate. This apparent reference to the manufacturer of semi-automatic handguns had been on the officer's car since 1994. According to the state's Department of Safety, license plates labeled "GLOCK" and "GLOCK45" are OK. As a spokeswoman told the Knoxville News Sentinel, "The problem definitely lies with the addition of the 'em.' "

While some of these cases are a little bizarre, they do illustrate one overriding principle: Many Americans are willing to fight for the right to express themselves, particularly when they've paid for the privilege of doing so.

One irony is that courts have generally upheld the right of people to put offensive messages on bumper stickers. Things get a little more complicated legally, though, when the speech is placed on a license plate, part of a statewide system of regulation.

The bottom line is that states do have some regulatory powers in terms of license-plate content, but the restrictions may not be arbitrary or overly broad, nor may they discriminate against specific viewpoints. The greater the government involvement in regulating speech, the more vigilant we all need to be.

Debates over off-color or offensive license plates may strike some as silly or trivial, but they do illustrate just how often the First Amendment comes into play in our daily lives — and how the free flow of ideas serves us all.

It's a remarkable nation that can tolerate "ARYAN1" in the interests of protecting "ROMANS5." In the end, it all comes down to protecting "FRESPCH."

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center with offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn. His mailing address is:
Ken Paulson
First Amendment Center
1207 18th Ave. S
Nashville, TN 37212

Related

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

Vanity plate fight lands in Vermont high court
Similar battles seen across U.S. as states grapple with where to draw the line between free expression and words that might offend.  03.20.02

High court won't weigh in on vanity-plate debate
Missouri officials had hoped justices would take case to decide if states can keep crude or contentious messages off license tags.  04.15.02

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