Offensive License Plates Are Free Speech, Court Tells California
QUEER, SLAAYRR license plates are OK, says judge. Thanks to the First Amendment, the state of California can’t ban residents from vanity license plate messages that it deems “offensive to good taste and decency.” A federal court ruled Tuesday that the state rule was an unconstitutional restriction on free expression.
The case against the California Department of Motor Vehicles—heard by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California— was brought by five people who were told their choices of vanity plate messages were off-limits. The five plaintiffs were represented by the libertarian law firm Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF).
“Vague bans on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law,” said PLF’s Wen Fa in a statement.
One of the people who filed the suit is a gay man who owns a record company called Queer Folks Records. He was originally told that he couldn’t get a license plate saying QUEER because it was an insult.
Another plaintiff—who loves the band Slayer—was denied a SLAAYRR license plate because the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) said the message was “threatening, aggressive or hostile.”
Agree with this 100 percent. Grateful to all of our clients for standing up for their constitutional rights. Today, a federal court agreed and held that California had no business restricting speech that it believes “offensive to good taste and decency.” https://t.co/fz72O7219v https://t.co/QOMxKlBb9h
— Wen Fa (@wenfa1) November 24, 2020
The DMV told plaintiff Paul Ogilvie that he couldn’t get a plate combining the first letters of his last name and his favorite animal— OGWOOLF—because OG can be slang for original gangster.
Another plaintiff was denied DUK N A plate because the DMV said it sounded too much like an obscene phrase, even if it wasn’t itself obscene. And BO11LUX (which looks to me like a play on the exclamation “Bollocks!”) was declared by the DMV to be too sexual.
But U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar sided with the plaintiffs, saying the state’s ban on plate messages with “connotations offensive to good taste and decency” is unconstitutional.
Tigar pointed to a recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the band The Slants, who won a fight with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office over their name.
“Tigar did say the DMV could probably be permitted to deny plates that are, for instance, obscene, profane or contain hate speech because they fall outside of First Amendment protections,” notes the Associated Press.
Today, Californians can feel a little freer.
A federal judge agreed with us that censorship of personalized license plates is absurd and unconstitutional.
— Pacific Legal ????⚖️ (@PacificLegal) November 24, 2020
You can read the judge’s full ruling here. The case is Ogilvie v. Gordon.
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