Supreme Court

License to Ill

Does the First Amendment cover vanity license plates?


Each day, millions of Americans unload their opinions for the world to see—Tweeting, blogging, and so forth.

That, in itself, is a shame. Any rational person would tell you that the nimble reasoning and clever pontifications of the professional opinion columnist are all the public really needs.

These days, sadly, we not only have dropped the once-revered custom of avoiding any discussion of religion or politics in the presence of company but also relentlessly impart nuggets of wisdom for everyone to see—most often via the rear ends of our cars.

Take the vanity plate, which allows the self-involved individual to convey a single tedious thought in eight characters or fewer (examples: "DAMNIML8" and "IHVNOLIF").

When a Colorado woman recently decided to apply for a vanity plate with the letters "ILVTOFU," officials judged it improper. The letters "F" and "U"—in this particular sequence, at least—are a no-no despite the fact that the woman really loves tofu.

Then again, you may ask yourself, which is more distasteful: public affection for fornication (completely natural) or a fealty for curded soybean products (a sin against nature)? And more importantly, who decides?

That brings us to a case the Supreme Court might be taking up soon regarding a case in Illinois, where officials have refused to issue a "Choose life" specialty license plate.

Is a license plate owned by the state, or is it the plaything of the individual? A specialty plate, after all, offers an official state-approved sheen. Should we be able to use it to make statements regarding our political beliefs?

States across the country offer specialty plates, ranging from the innocuous ("End Breast Cancer") to the exceptionally vague ("Imagine") to the insufferable ("trees are cool") to the religious ("I Believe"). But why limit them at all? Most often, these are citizen-driven ideas. What would we say to a license plate stating "Smoke cigarettes" or "I don't believe"?

The Supreme Court hasn't weighed in on the First Amendment implications of license plates since 1977, when it ruled that a New Hampshire man named George Maynard was no longer impelled to drive around with the best state motto in the country: "Live Free or Die." Maynard claimed that given the choice, he rather would live in bondage than be free and dead. The Supreme Court found that in this country, even loyalist swine have a choice on the matter.

In the "Choose life" case, Illinois claims that a license plate conveys government, rather than private, speech. If that is so, what should we do about the 19 states that do allow "Choose life"—which is clearly a political statement?

Nationally, specialty license plates generate tens of millions of dollars, so we never will see an end to them. Yet do license plates really need to convey anything more than a government ID number?

Let's end the madness. You don't need to have everyone you drive by know that you're "Pet Friendly" or that you "Love Our Kids." God invented the bumper sticker for a reason.

Of course, none of this would be relevant if people kept their opinions off the streets and thought whatever columnists told them to.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at


NEXT: Step Away From the Vehicle

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  1. Should we be able to use it to make statements regarding our political beliefs?

    Don’t government officials already do that?

  2. ITMFA

  3. Eliot Spitzer: Superdouchebag!

    Invalidating the 2nd Amendment with money, a just a dash of socialism.

  4. Haven’t read the article yet, but I think there are two separate issues here.

    1.Vanity plates — plates which have a customized characters instead of a computer generated/random license characters. Vanity plates tend to cost extra (in illinois it costs EVEN MORE if you have all letters instead of letters and numbers — so ChiTom would cost more than “ChiTom 1” which costs more than a random non-vanity plate)

    2. Specialty plates (See Illinois’ here) These are plates that are different from standard/vanity plates. The plate itself has a message/design etc regardless of the characters that make up the license plate number. These plates usually cost a bit more and can be personalized(custom characters) as well for even more money.

    Honestly, I don’t like either ones, but #2 are worse I think because people/groups have to submit a request to the state to add a specialty plate and the state gets to approve or deny them. This gives the state the ability to further certain messages but not others. There have been numerous lawsuits where some states offer “Choose Life” specialty plates but won’t allow “Support Choice” specialty plates.

    #1 one bugs me too, but a bit less. Those plates usually only get rejected because of something obscene or profane on the plate (like: ASSMAN or FU2 or NE1469). But the decision is left o some government employee to try and figure out the message. If you are clever enough of the employee dense enough you can slip something vulgar through

    If it were me, I would prefer everyone just gets a standard license plate, and that’s that. It seems like the most hassle free solution

  5. Eliot Spitzer: Superdouchebag!

    God damn it, Sugar. I was hoping for a nice, trashy NY Post headline, not this chillingly douchebaggy powergasm.

  6. Just call me Balko Jr., the Crime Puppy.

  7. Good job libertarians. You fight off that road to serfdom sneaking in the classic back door invasion, vanity license plates.

    We will not give up, and we will not surrender. We are not going to take our freedom eggs out of the vanity license plate basket.


  9. Invalidating the 2nd Amendment with money, a just a dash of socialism.

    Just be glad he’s a moron. They already buy guns from gun manufacturers who “don’t sell to criminals”, solely by the fact that the government buys expensive guns. You think the average gun sold on the street is a Beretta, or a Glock? No, it’s a Taurus or a Rossi (Brazilian guns) or old Soviet Block stuff.

    Note that Spitzer is already trying to return to legitmacy, however.

  10. Very interesting, Will. Very interesting, indeed.

    Do go on. How very interesting.

    Or are you a shill for Big License Plate?

    that’s it. Isn’t it.

    *strikes dramatic, yet jaunty pose*

  11. Epi,

    I think the waiting period is lower if it’s a bridge and tunnel hooer.

  12. No waiting period at all if you’re properly connected, like Herr Spitzer. Fucking. Steamroller.

  13. I feel for Eliot, it’s probably taken him months to readjust to only fucking wrinkled old wife-pussy… that sort of hardship really drains one’s energy for thinking up new ways to get around the Constitution.

  14. Sugar – he also was refused access to the Noam Chomsky blow up doll, the leather bound edition of “Heather Has Two Mommies” (the edition with the sweaty pillow fight scene on page 69), and Stevo’s bunk.

    The man has pent up energy. Has to take it out somehow.

  15. Has to take it out somehow.


  16. Uh…as if Spitzer isn’t still banging hoooeess. The only reason the Feds jumped on him hard with both feet was that he was governor. They don’t give a shit what he does now.

  17. There’s actually an issue going on right now with specialty license plates in Arizona. Recently, the law was changed so that you can’t have a frame which obscures the word “Arizona” on the plate. it happens that a lot of specialty plates issued by Arizona are incompatible with the standard plate frames. The cops have been essentially using it as an excuse to pull people over.


    THX ~C6H12O6!

  19. “If it were me, I would prefer everyone just gets a standard license plate, and that’s that. It seems like the most hassle free solution”

    Free Minds
    Free Markets
    Standard Plates for All

  20. What the fuck is insufferable about “trees are cool”? Trees are cool. They provide shade and animal habitat, prevent erosion, and provide lumber to make useful and beautiful things. Don’t let you hatred for hippies obscure reality.

    The plates are still stupid, I agree, but there are a lot better examples.

  21. “It was a million-to-one shot, Doc.”

  22. Episiarch

    No, it’s a Taurus or a Rossi (Brazilian guns) or old Soviet Block stuff.

    9x18mm Makarov is the only $150.00 I’m not afraid to shoot . . .

  23. Only $150.00 gun


  24. My cousin-in-law showed up with her shiny red sportscar and a new vanity plate: “REDE4FN” (ready for fun). She wasn’t amused when I read it as, “Ready for effin’.”

    Also, it’s bloc, not block.

  25. Eliot Spitzer:

    More fundamentally, companies could be told to stop selling certain types of weapons to the general public. If a manufacturer did not comply with any of the limitations, then it would be excluded from the list of companies with which the government would do business.

    U.S. active duty military: 1,455,000
    U.S. military reserve forces: 848,000
    U.S. federal/state/local sworn law enforcement officers: 837,000
    Total government employees with guns: 3,140,000
    Non-government gun owners: 80,000,000
    Ratio of non-government to government: 25:1, providing all state and local governments go along with Spitzer’s federal policy

    Which market would you give up?

    But if the Obama administration really cares about limiting gun violence, it could pursue a different strategy, one that doesn’t involve Congress and isn’t likely to provoke a storm of opposition.

    What planet does Spitzer live on?

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