Picture a guy walking down the street. Every time this guy happens to spy a police officer, he screams out, “Cops are liars! Cops are scum. I hate cops!” One might well question his sanity, as it’s rarely a good idea to go out of your way to antagonize a police officer.
But if that’s what the guy wants to do, it’s his right. The First Amendment says he can express his views about cops whenever he wants, right? Well, maybe. Via the Associated Press:
A New Hampshire man told the state’s highest court Thursday that denying him a vanity license plate that reads “COPSLIE” violates his political free speech rights.
David Montenegro, who last year legally changed his name to “human,” said he wanted the plate because he feels it highlights government corruption.
Apparently, somebody in the bowels of the department of motor vehicles thought that the requested plate wasn’t “appropriate.”
The policy prohibits vanity plates that “a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste.”
And the DMV is the first place one would go to find a “reasonable person,” right? During oral argument before the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the state conceded that two different DMV employees might reach two different conclusions (maybe more) about whether a vanity plate was in “good taste,” but in this instance, the rejection of the plate was justified:
Senior Assistant Attorney General Richard Head argued that state workers were right to deny the plate in 2010, because the phrase disparages an entire class of people – police officers.
Putting aside whether police officers are properly characterized as a “class of people,” rather than, say, an occupation, it’s a smart argument. While it fails to address the arbitrary and capricious nature of the decision-making process, or the impairment of constitutionally protected political speech in the process, it plays on an approach that has reached meme status lately: the protection of free speech must give way when it disparages someone.
Sound at all familiar? It’s the argument in favor of anti-bullying laws. It’s the argument made in favor of criminalizing revenge porn. it the core argument of the Cyber Civil Rights crowd. Except this time, the ox being gored isn’t one of theirs.
After court, the plaintiff said he thought police officers who might pull him over and have to type “COPSLIE” into their computers would amount to “the perfect situational irony.” He said he was confident the court would invalidate the DMV provision, despite opening his argument by telling the justices that the only reason the case had reached their level was because of a corrupt judiciary.
Will the ironies never cease? When word of this case first hit my radar, the first amendment implications were obvious to me. But the utility of the argument goes well beyond whether
David Montenegro Human thinks it’s worth being hassled a thousand times to delight in the notion of police inputting COPSLIE into their computers. Hey, if he doesn’t mind giving up thousands of hours of his life for irony, why not?
Just because the target of disparagement this time happens to be police officers, rather than, say, women scorned, will no one make this argument?
Speech, by the mere virtue of being speech, does not receive First Amendment protection by default. Factor in that the speech in question here is [patently offensive to a group of people who keep us safe from criminals]
sexually explicit, of purely private interest, and has devastating secondary effects – that’s speech with zero positive value and a great deal of negative value. There’s no Supreme Court precedent for protecting that. To the contrary, the Court has made it clear that such forms of speech “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire)
See how that works? It still strikes me as monumentally foolish to get a vanity plate that reads “COPSLIE,” especially since you have to pay extra for it, but hey, that’s what free speech is all about. The First Amendment doesn’t protect us from stupidity, but it does protect us from the good taste of reasonable people.