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 www.DavidHarsanyi.com.