Free Speech

Court Strikes Down Kentucky's Rejection of IM GOD Vanity Plate

Vanity plates are private speech in a nonpublic forum, the court holds; restrictions on such speech must be viewpoint-neutral and reasonable.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Kentucky allows nonprofit groups to arrange for license plate designs, subject to some conditions:

(c) The group, or the group's lettering, logo, image, or message to be placed on the license plate, if created, shall not discriminate against any race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and shall not be construed, as determined by the cabinet, as an attempt to victimize or intimidate any person due to the person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;

(d) The group shall not be a political party and shall not have been created primarily to promote a specific political belief;

(e) The group shall not have as its primary purpose the promotion of any specific faith, religion, or antireligion.

(f) The name of the group shall not be the name of a special product or brand name, and shall not be construed, as determined by the cabinet, as promoting a product or brand name;  and

(g) The group's lettering, logo, image, or message to be placed on the license plate, if created, shall not be obscene, as determined by the cabinet.

It also lets individuals set up their own vanity plates—the combinations of letters and numbers that identifies the car, not the overall plate design—but requires them "to comply with the conditions" set forth for the plate designs. Bennie Hart asked for a license plate that said IM GOD, but the request was denied "based on its reference to religion."

Unconstitutional, said Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove yesterday in Hart v. Thomas (E.D. Ky.).

[1.] Vanity plate contents are private speech, not government speech. Though Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans held that license plate designs are government speech, and the government can generally pick and choose which ones are allowed, vanity plates convey the owner's own views. In this, the court rejected a recent contrary Indiana Supreme Court decision, and followed instead the reasoning in a recent Maryland high court decision.

[2.] The vanity plate program is a nonpublic forum, so the government has some power to restrict speech there—but only in a viewpoint-based and reasonable way. And

Based on the facts of this case, § 186.174(1) is unreasonable as applied to Mr. Hart. The Transportation Cabinet argues that a statute banning religious reference is reasonable because it is necessary to support its legitimate government interest in "promot[ing] highway safety" because "potentially controversial messages … could lead to confrontation or distraction on its highways." The Sixth Circuit has stated that avoidance of controversy is a valid ground for restricting speech in a nonpublic forum, because a nonpublic forum is not dedicated to general debate or the free exchange of ideas. See United Food & Commer. Workers Union, Local 1099 v. Southwest Ohio Reg'l Transit Auth., 163 F.3d 356 (6th Cir. 1998) (collecting cases). However, the Transportation Cabinet has been so inconsistent in its application of § 186.174 that it has ceased to be "consistent with [Kentucky's] legitimate government interest" in any way.

If the Transportation Cabinet genuinely wants to avoid controversy on Kentucky's highways by preventing "promotion of any specific faith, religion, or anti-religion" from appearing on vanity plates, then it should have denied "IM4GOD", "ASKGOD", GR8GOD", "LUVGOD". But it did not. Instead, the Transportation Cabinet has approved multipl[e] vanity plates featuring the word "god". This suggests that the law as applied to Mr. Hart is neither reasonable nor viewpoint neutral.

Seems right to me.

[3.] Given Matal v. Tam (the Slants case), I think that the exclusion of messages that "discriminate against any race, color, religion, sex, or national origin" (if understood as banning messages that support such discrimination) and messages that "attempt to victimize or intimidate any person due to the person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin" would be unconstitutionally viewpoint-based. (A ban on speech that conveys true threats against people would be constitutional, but such threats are hard to communicate in six letters or numbers, especially if the threat specifically targets a certain group; and in any event, given R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, even restrictions on true threats are unconstitutional if they discriminate against bigoted viewpoints.)

Likewise, given Rosenberger v. Rector and Matal, the exclusion of material that is primarily meant to "promot[e] … any specific faith, religion, or antireligion" would be unconstitutionally viewpoint-based even if it had been evenhandedly applied. But the court had no occasion to deal with the restrictions on "discriminatory," "victimizing," or "intimidating" messages, and it declined to consider a facial challenge to the restriction on religion-related messages.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

NEXT: The Democratic Primaries Get a Last-Minute Addition

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  1. I suspect the owner of that plate has some interesting stories. Either way, I mean.

    1. Maybe he’s just a fan of the movie Ghostbusters? Someone asked him if he’s a god, and he is saying yes.

      1. I was thinking Alec Baldwin in “Malice”

  2. i would like to Instant Message god; has anyone got the link for that?

    1. Lots of people say they have one.

      1. You can talk to God all you want, he doesn’t answer in a simple written format though, if he does at all.

  3. I’m not sure if it came up in the opinion or not, but Kentucky has two generic license plates (the ones the state produces on its own and you don’t have to pay extra for): “Unbridled Spirit” and “In God We Trust.”

    It seems a bit… well, viewpoint un-neutral to have an official “In God We Trust” state license plate but to deny “I AM GOD” on the basis of its religious message.

    1. Sorta. If the official motto is “In Got We Trust” then Kentucky should be able to prohibit someone from driving with a plate that says “IM GOD” because Kentucky doesn’t trust in that dude.

      1. “United we stand, divided we fall.”

        Maybe the dude’s proclamation of divinity was too divisive for the Commonwealth.

    2. Deities are not allowed to drive on Kentucky roads.

      1. He is allowed by the state to have the plate. So far, so good. But where can he park the car? In front of a mosque seems safe.

        1. Actually, the worst part is when he has to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

          The pedestrian always stops in front of the car and starts genuflecting. And then he has to wait forever!

          1. Such a delay would be immaterial to an immortal being.

      2. Perhaps he has a dual nature. Which would then raise the whole Hypostatic Union question, and I pretty sure that’s not justiciable.

        Well, in state court, anyway. 😎

  4. I continue to think license plates and other road-related material are different. People can crash if they get distracted by something they get angry at. I think courts can’t simply ignore that reality by pretending human nature is infinitely tolerant to these things.

    1. So should I go with the YOMAMA license plate, the UPYRS plate, or the one with the ethnic slur?

    2. Nothing requires states to sell vanity plates. They do it to make money. The world would not end if we got rid of these things entirely, and maybe they are a distraction.

      But…

      Once they decide to do it, viewpoint neutrality is a must. This is just an application of that principle. But we all accept it- can a state allow “FUK GOP” but disallow “GOP NO 1”?

      1. I think the first part of your comment is right on the money. States should not be selling vanity licenses. It is a run around to avoid raising fees and taxes. The state should have fees and taxes necessary to provide the expected services and leave it at that.

  5. “A ban on speech that conveys true threats against people would be constitutional, but such threats are hard to communicate in six letters or numbers, ”

    Hey Professor Volokh, IWL-KLU

    (Not really, for those people who don’t have a sense of humor)

    1. Right: If your license plate reads “IWL KLU,” no-one will take it as a true threat that the driver will actually kill the reader.

      1. The will however think he’s a Jeff Dunham fan.

        Achmed the dead terrorist rules!

  6. I just want 2F 3567. Try getting that one….
    (For those not TV trivia nerds, that’s the number of the 1966 Gotham plate on Adam West’s Batmobile. See http://www.1966batmobile.com/plates.htm .)

    The “In God We Trust” themed plates are pretty common among the various states. I’ve usually looked at them as a dodge by fundies to get around any ban on the outright promotion of religion.

  7. Kim Davis approves the court’s decision so we all good.

  8. I was the (student) head of intramural officials (also students) at my university and considered myself the IM god.

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