At the top of New Hampshire license plate, it boldly reads, “Live Free or Die.” This is an important lesson. Never believe license plates, as a Dover man learned when he applied for the “vanity” plate, COPSLIE. From WMUR9 :
The Department of Motor Vehicles refused to issue a plate to a Dover man in 2010 that read “COPSLIE,” calling the text “insulting.” The DMV cited a state statute that says a vanity plate can’t be “ethnically, racially (insulting) or which a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste.”While I personally can’t imagine spending hard earned money on a vanity plate in the first place, that’s just my parochial sensibility. Apparently, others are happy to do so. But would a reasonable person find “COPSLIE” to be “offensive to good taste?” The problem was exacerbated by what happened next:
Months later, the man was again denied “COPSLIE,” but the DMV approved his second choice, which can be read to say, “Great government.”To say this raises huge First Amendment issues is an understatement. The argument that political speech on a license plate is perfectly acceptable as long as it favors the government, and its armed personnel, but unacceptable otherwise is deeply troubling.
“If you praise the government, that’s OK. You can get a plate that does that,” he said. “If you criticize the government or agents of the government, that’s not OK. That’s how the petitioner is trying to frame his argument here.”
Then there is the question of “good taste.” What the heck does that mean? Who decides what tastes good? To the extent the states refusal to allow plates that say COPSLIE must pass constitutional muster under strict scrutiny, can anyone seriously argue that “good taste” is sufficiently narrowly tailored? But then, tailored to do what, not offend? Is the government’s interest in no one being offended on the road sufficiently legitimate a purpose to infringe on speech at all?
Or are license plates different?
Some might argue that a license plate, issued by DMV, reflects some degree of governmental approval of the message, though I doubt anyone would buy the argument that the role of the DMV is anything more than a vendor selling an opportunity for people who want to throw money away by putting dopey crap on tin. Others might contend that people have no right to use license plates to express what a government grocery clerk thinks are unpleasant thoughts, though having required plates on cars, and it being perfectly lawful for a person to own a motor vehicle subject to registration with the state, I fail to see what authority the state has to censor content. Having mandated plates, and the registrant complying with the mandate, the business of what the plate expresses isn’t a privilege.
The saving grace for most states is that the cost/benefit analysis of a person whose content is rejected by the state weighs against taking the matter to court. It’s upsetting, perhaps, but not worth the cost and effort to challenge. In this instance, however, the Dover man has decided to take a stand. Curiously, the New Hampshire Supreme Court appears to be remarkably open to the idea that the state is doing it all wrong.
In the New Hampshire case, the state Supreme Court is doing something uncommon, soliciting opinions from people not directly connected to the case. The American Civil Liberties Union is planning to present an opinion, saying the state DMV made a mistake.
The ACLU was similarly involved in a Nevada case where the owner has a license plate that read ”HOE” until
2006 when a single DMV employee decided arbitrarily that the word was offensive after consulting only the Urban Dictionary, an online source which defines words through user-generated content. Because someone on the Urban Dictionary defined “hoe” as “whore,” Mr. Junge’s plate was revoked.
Junge, however, selected “HOE” for his plate because he drove a Tahoe, and the word “Tahoe” was already taken.
The Court agreed with the ACLU’s arguments that the DMV cannot make First Amendment decisions arbitrarily. Instead, the DMV must show substantial evidence proving that a requested plate is inappropriate. While the Urban Dictionary may be an entertaining website about the English language, the Court acknowledged that it is not a reliable source for decisions about acceptable speech. In relying solely on the Urban Dictionary to deny Mr. Junge’s license plate, the DMV violated the First Amendment. The ACLU of Nevada applauds the Nevada Supreme Court for its decision to permit the “HOE” plate.The Urban Dictionary isn’t a reliable source? What? Well, in any event, the ruling still leaves much confusion as to what “inappropriate” means, who decides and why the state has any business in deciding what words in likes and what words it doesn’t.
When it comes to political expressions like COPSLIE, as opposed to abbreviation of Chevy truck models, however, the infringement of free speech goes to the core of what the government should never be permitted to do. Much as it might offend some (and invite unwanted attention from your local police cruiser), that’s the choice of the individual, not a clerk in the bowels of the motor vehicle department.
And if that’s the way somebody wants to squander their money, what business is it of the state? Live free or die, but have happy license plates? How about government let people put whatever foolishness they want on their license plates, with only those limitations that can pass strict scrutiny. If people want to spend their money engaged in foolish expressive pursuits, then who is government to stop them?