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Vanity plate fight lands in Vermont high court

By The Associated Press

03.20.02

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SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — A few days before St. Patrick's Day, Carol Ann Martin was decked out in a pale green dress and bright green headband with shamrocks and leprechaun.

The occasion was not a corned beef and cabbage festival but a hearing before the Vermont Supreme Court at which Martin's lawyer argued that she should be allowed to have "IRISH1" on her license plate.

The case arrived at the high court after the state Department of Motor Vehicles said the plate violated its rule against references to ethnic groups.

"The people of this state want to have words or phrases on their license plates that are positive and meaningful to them," Martin said after the hearing. "What's wrong with 'Irish'?"

It's a fight seen in states around the country as they grapple with where to draw the line between free expression and words that might offend or serve as an invitation to trouble.

In Ohio, the fight has been over a proposed plate saying "H8 MICH," a criticism either of nearby Michigan or its sports teams. The motor vehicle agency automatically rejects all requests for "hate" — "H8" — plates, as well as those that include profanity, drug references and ethnic slurs.

In Florida, state officials decided March 14 to allow a Gainesville man to keep his license plate reading "ATHEIST," reversing their previous demand to revoke it.

Steven Miles, vice president of Atheists of Florida, had the plate for 16 years before the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles sent him a letter last month saying the plate was "obscene or objectionable" and must be returned.

The review of his tag was prompted by a complaint signed by 10 people, said DMV spokesman Robert Sanchez. A supervisor in the Bureau of Titles and Registrations in Tallahassee sided with the protesters and decided to yank the plate.

Sanchez said the department will form a committee to review all future tags "that fall into a gray area" before they are recalled. Miles' tag would have qualified for committee review, he said.

Meanwhile, "WINE" was the license plate at issue before the Oregon Supreme Court on March 14. Michael Higgins, a 65-year-old retired wine merchant, went to court after his applications for plates saying "WINE," "IN VINO" and "VINO" were rejected. Oregon's motor vehicle agency bans references to alcohol, tobacco or drugs, along with vulgar or sex-related words.

Higgins' question is this: "Why shouldn't people be able to put anything on a vanity plate that they can put on a bumper sticker?"

Edmund Spinney, Higgins' attorney, argued March 14 that a vanity plate is clearly the expression of the motorist, so the state is not free to restrict it under the Oregon Constitution.

But Mary Williams, an attorney with the Oregon Department of Justice, said people who apply for vanity plates are really just making suggestions to the state, which can decide what it wants to say.

Vermont officials have a similar argument. Bonnie Rutledge, the state's motor vehicles commissioner, said license plates are state property, and their main purpose is to identify vehicles.

"That is not really the purpose of a license plate — to put out your own personal message," she said.

Under Vermont law, the commissioner can reject an application for a vanity plate that "might be offensive or confusing to the general public."

For example, Paula Perry of East Montpelier recently lost her bid to have "SHTHPNS" on her license plates. It's not what you might think: Perry said it stood for "shout happiness."

At issue are rules the commissioner issued interpreting the law. Barred are "combinations of letters or numbers that refer in any language to a race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation."

Rutledge said the rules are stricter than they used to be — "IRISH" is on a set of Vermont plates right now, for example.

At the Vermont Supreme Court hearing, Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy asked if a strict reading of the word "color" on the forbidden list might bar someone from having a plate that said "BLUE."

John Bloomer, Martin's lawyer, expanded on that point in a later interview. "Under the current rule you can have 'GO SOX' but not 'GO RED SOX' and not 'GO YANKS,' " he said.

The hearing had its lighter moments, including when Justice James Morse asked about more indirect ethnic references and referred to the word "SHAMROCK" on a license plate.

"I think this close to March 17, it probably would be fine," said William Griffin, chief assistant attorney general, to a laugh from the audience.

He needn't worry: "SHAMROCK" is eight letters, and vanity plates are limited to seven.

Related

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

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

Driver: State must yield to request for plates with biblical messages
Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles officials say tags would violate rules for vanity plates.  06.25.01

Missouri ordered to reissue 'ARYAN-1' license plate
State failed to show constitutional justification for censoring tag, appeals panel finds.  06.13.01

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