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'Shthpns' license plate panned by federal appeals court

By The Associated Press


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NEW YORK — A federal appeals court in Manhattan has refused to allow a motorist to drive her pickup on the nation's highways with a license plate it deems objectionable.

Paula Perry, a former investigator for the civil rights division of Vermont's attorney general's office, had argued that she had a First Amendment right to carry her message, "Shthpns" — a variation of a more objectionable phrase — on her license plate.

But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a ruling made public yesterday rejected Perry's argument, saying she did not have a right to the vanity plate and that the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles did not deny her a fair hearing.

"Vermont has not intended to designate and has not designated its vanity plates as a public forum," the court ruled.

The court said the vanity license plates were issued by the state primarily to aid vehicle identification and as a method of raising revenue rather than to create a forum for unlimited public expression.

It also concluded the general public does not have unimpeded access to Vermont license plates, but can only put a message on their plates if they have obtained permission to do so.

In arguments before the appeals court, a lawyer for Perry had cited numerous instances in which scatological terms were prominent on vanity plates in Vermont. Some of those examples included "Cowpies," "Pooper," "Toot" and "Shtrbug." Perry had ordered the license plates for a 1995 Ford pickup that she used in rural Vermont. She received them at her home near Montpelier on July 10, 1997, and used them for more than a year.

Then, the state 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 that the department did not follow its own procedures in taking them away rather than rejecting them to begin with. Perry then sued the state for damages.

A federal judge then threw out the case, siding with Vermont, and the case was appealed to the 2nd Circuit.

The appeals court in its ruling said Vermont's policy does not prevent Perry from communicating the same message on her truck, perhaps through a bumper sticker.

A telephone for David Putter, lawyer for Perry, went unanswered late yesterday as did the phone for the attorney general's office in Vermont.

Bridget Asay, an assistant attorney general in Vermont, had argued that Vermont decided reasonably that it did not want to participate in Perry's message.


Federal appeals panel hears dispute over 'Shthpns' license plate
Vermont officials say reference to four-letter word violates state policy, but resident says tag is protected by First Amendment.  04.04.01


The GR8 debate over vanity license plates
By Ken Paulson Express yourself in seven letters or less.  08.26.01

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