Free Speech

Do You Have a First Amendment Right to a Slayer-Themed License Plate?

A new lawsuit is challenging the California DMV's rejection of allegedly offensive personalized license plates.

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There are few things more intimate than a personalized license plate. Yet California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) rejects tens of thousands of applications for individualized plate slogans each year for being offensive to "good taste and decency."

Yesterday, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit against state DMV director Steve Gordon alleging his department's license plate policy violates the First Amendment's free speech protections. The DMV, they are arguing, is using a dangerously expansive definition of "government speech" to unconstitutionally censor motorists' expression.

"Our lawsuit is about vague laws that give government bureaucrats unbridled discretion to regulate speech, and that inevitably leads to arbitrary results," says Wen Fa, an attorney with PLF. "It's basically at the DMV's whims what might be offensive and what isn't."

In 2018, the state DMV rejected 30,000 of the roughly 249,000 personal plate applications they received. PLF is representing five people who've similarly had their plate applications rejected.

That includes Paul Ogilvie, an army veteran, who wanted to combine his military nickname 'OG' with childhood nickname 'Woolf' to make an 'OGWOOLF' license plate. The DMV rejected this for supposedly being offensive.

They did the same thing to Amrit Kohli, a gay computer programmer and musician, whose application for a license plate saying "QUEER"—a reference to Kohli's own identity—was rejected for being "insulting, degrading, or expressing contempt for a specific group or person," according to the PLF complaint.

James Blair is also suing the DMV after being told that his proposed "SLAAYRR" plate—a reference to the metal band Slayer—was "threatening, aggressive, or hostile" and therefore violated the department's prohibition on offensive plates.

In addition, PLF is representing English pub owner Paul Crawford, whose proposed "BO11LUX" license plate was turned down for being too sexual, and motorcycle enthusiast Andrea Campanile for a rejected "DUK N A" license plate (a reference to Ducati motorcycles and her first name).

This is not the first time California's personal plate regulations have come under attack. Last year PLF sued the department on behalf of university professor Jon Kotler who'd likewise had his application for a personalized plate rejected.

The state DMV argued in that case that because it was the one issuing the plates, it was the government speaking, and not the private citizen requesting the plates. Therefore, it was up to the discretion of the department which messages it would allow.

A judge for the  U.S. District Court for the Central District of California rejected this argument in denying a government motion to dismiss the case, writing that it "it strains believability to argue that
viewers perceive the government as speaking through personalized vanity plates."

That case was resolved in January 2020 when the DMV decided to issue Kotler the initially rejected plate. However, the department has kept its regulations about offensive plates on the books, prompting PLF to file a second lawsuit.

"The government speech doctrine has very wide implications for free speech in general. The government is increasingly relying on that doctrine to say individuals have no free speech rights at all, and therefore the government can ban speech it finds offensive or hateful," says Fa. "If the DMV's logic were correct, then the government could censor offensive speech in public parks, which is also government property."

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  1. “‘R’ stands for ‘rat’ … a BIG FUCKING RAT!!”

    Ban all license plates as potentially offensive!

  2. So I guess FUK OFF wouldn’t fly.

    1. MSTRB8

      1. OG Buttplug could get one that says ‘PEDOMAN’.

    2. DOG MI

    3. Every vanity plate might as well read “I’m egocentric, boorish, and generally a pain in the ass to be around”.

    4. California is the closest thing to Communism in our country. None of the admittedly wonderful features of California are enough to put up with a government that would put Stalin to shame.

  3. The only remedy is to do away with license plates altogether.

    1. Good idea. Anyone who submits an offensive plate number request has to do without one!

    2. Hmm. Car recognition algorithms should be easier than face recognition.

    3. sex in linz is the place to go when you are looking for fun chat with hot ladies

    4. You can’t do that!! Then the crooked cops (all of them are) wouldn’t be able to screw with people, which screwing is about all they do, as they CERTAINLY don’t reduce or solve crimes.

  4. James Blair is also suing the DMV after being told that his proposed “SLAAYRR” plate—a reference to the metal band Slayer

    It wasn’t a Buffy thing? Moving on…

    1. KSWANSN

      1. The other Buffy, you savage!

        1. misspelled “only”

  5. You know, I’ve thought about this long and hard and, no, you don’t have a first amendment right to put anything you want on your license plate. Licenses are issued by the state DMV, they are not a method of communication. They serve a utility for the state to help identify your car on the road. If you had an unfettered freedom to put whatever you wanted on your plate, then I could demand my plate number be the exact same as my neighbors, or simply rip the thing off the car and put whatever printed info on the back and call it done, even changing it daily.

    1. Licenses are issued by the state DMV, they are not a method of communication.
      If you have something to say, put it on a bumper sticker.

      1. Ed Zachary. No one has restricted his ability to speak here.

    2. Well when they give people an option for vanity plates, then they should honor the request. Vanity plates are a way for people to express themselves. Government should not be in the business of censoring your expression.

      1. Anyway, it’s a great way to raise revenue!

      2. I want my vanity plate to be my neighbors number. It’s a tribute plate.

        1. That plate is already taken.

        2. You do know it has to be a unique plate right? So your example is really lame.

      3. No, vanity plates are a way for the state to make more revenue each year, Tennessee charges an additional fee each year even though it is just a one time cost to make the plate.

    3. Nope. They don’t have to offer vanity plates, but once they do, they don’t get to filter based on content.

      1. Of course they do. I can’t put anything I want on my plate, including making it look like a plate from another state, or changing it on the fly.

        If they “can’t filter for content” that’s an absolute statement and it’s clearly laughable they would make absolutely no judgement or restrictions of content. What about all black with black numbers?

        1. They have a compelling interest in keeping it looking like a CA plate. They don’t have a compelling interest in censoring non-obscene content.

          1. Or obscene content for that matter.

        2. What about all black with black numbers?

          Another silly example. You DO understand that what they allow is a choice of letters/number, not a redesign. No one is arguing that you get to totally design your plate. The argument is that if they offer you the ability to chose your letters/number, then they shouldn’t censor your choice of letter/numbers.

    4. That was true until the state decided to allow vanity plates. Once they decided to grub for money, they gave up the claim that license plates are only about identifying the car.

      The state gave people the forum in which to speak. The state could take that forum away entirely by eliminating the vanity plate program. And they can condition the forum based on compelling interest – in this case, the continuing need for unique identification which undoes your hypotheticals. But the state cannot, under the First Amendment, allow this limited speech forum conditioned on nothing more than government whims.

      It’s all or nothing. Allow it or don’t. There is no middle ground.

      1. It’s all or nothing. Allow it or don’t. There is no middle ground.

        See my comment above. Of course there’s middle ground. If however, you successfully convince me that there is no middle ground, then yes, I agree, eliminate the vanity plate concept altogether.

        1. Yeah, lots of middle ground. My plates can’t have the word ‘Ohio’ on them, ‘commercial’ plates don’t get issued to non-CDL drivers, etc.

          1. Commercial plates are a classification, you don’t choose your classification, the state tells you which one you need, which is the total opposite of vanity plates

            1. you don’t choose your classification

              You aren’t wrong, I’m not 100% right, but it’s complicated. CA registers most every pickup truck as a commercial vehicle. Vans with a seating capacity over 10 people are commercial vehicles. IL requires special registration for commercial plates and only vans with a seating capacity over 16 are considered “commercial use only”.

              1. IL requires special registration for commercial plates

                That being, the majority of pickup trucks that would be commercial in CA are passenger vehicles in IL.

        2. That’s not middle ground. That’s articulation of a compelling state interest. States may limit the available vanity plates in furtherance of the original “unique identifier” purpose. States have utterly failed in their arguments that prudishness counts as a compelling state interest.

      2. Yep. Even a plate with a graphic of a gaping rectum. Why not, right?

        1. Since plates are only 7 alphanumeric characters the closest you can get to that is E03 (think goatse) which I doubt anyone would flag as offensive and likely appears on random generated plates across the country

    5. On the surface you make a valid argument, however by offering personalized and vanity plates the state is ceding that the plates have more than a mere utilitarian function. If they were to stop allowing vanity plates entirely that would be one thing, but as long as they offer them they shouldn’t be engaging in censorship

      1. Great. Sounds like the state needs to stop supporting people’s non-utilitarian use of their license plates. If there’s no interest on behalf of the state they shouldn’t be doing it.

        1. “If there’s no interest on behalf of the state they shouldn’t be doing it.”

          But there is an interest on behalf of the state, just not one that would allow censorship of specific vanity plate choices.

          That interest is $$$. Vanity plates cost more than regular plates.

          1. That interest is $$$.

            The state doesn’t exist to make money. It’s great that it doesn’t run a debt, but profit is not the reason it exists.

            1. “The state doesn’t exist to make money.”

              Don’t be silly, of course the state doesn’t exist to make money, the state exists to SPEND money. But to spend it, they first have to take it away from you somehow.

    6. Well, they opened that can of worms when they started allowing specialized plates for different causes and organizations. You allow one, you have to allow them all.
      Reminds of the numerous instances where some state or local government allowed Christmas decorations on public property and then refused to allow other religious and satanist group the same opportunity. That didn’t fly either.

      1. You allow one, you have to allow them all.

        “If you have any government at all, you have to have totalitarianism.”

        1. You mean the kind of government that censors everything, such as vanity license plates?

          1. You mean the kind of government that censors everything, such as vanity license plates?

            Is that your government? The internet, art, literature, design architecture… all censored out of existence? The last bastion of free speech is vanity license plates?

            This is not the ant hill to die on.

  6. Anyone wanting a personalized plate should consider the matter from the point of view of the highway patrolman who’s wondering if it would be worth the hassle of pulling over someone for a minor offense…what would you *not* want that trooper to read on your plate?

    1. DONUTS

    2. Avoid NULL, NO TAG, etc, unless you want a lot of tickets from cops you never encounter.

    3. HRC2016

    4. L78-207

      1. I always figured AUTH VEH would let me use the Interstate turnarounds.

  7. “There are few things more intimate than a personalized license plate.”

    It would be impossible to come up with anything more intimate than a personalized license plate.

    1. Yet a personalized license plate can legally be out in public, unlike some other intimate things.

  8. That QUEER one is going to run into the SLANTS decision.

    1. I was thinking the same thing

    2. I disagree. Not that I think the ruling would be right, but “we’ll defend your right to identify uniquely” =/= “we’ll provide you every means or honor every method by which to identify uniquely”. Maybe if the dude were an Uber driver or tour guide known as ‘The Queer Guy’, but it’s not like The Slants won the right to have Joe “Mr. Slanty” Chang (or whatever their names are) printed on their driver’s license.

      1. Could he have a personalized license plate with his name on it?

        What if his name was Wang?

        1. And his first name was Hung?

        2. Not if his name was Assman (pronounced “Ossman”) — true story.

          1. It was a one in a million shot doc!

      2. As with the commercial plates note above, you don’t get to choose what name goes on your driver’s license, the state tells you what goes on it (your legal name) which is again the total opposite of a vanity plate

        1. you don’t get to choose what name goes on your driver’s license, the state tells you what goes on it (your legal name)

          This is dumb. And how does the state know your legal name? Who provides them with this information?

  9. Minor detail; there are no constitutional rights in California.

  10. Every vanity plate might as well read “I’m egocentric, boorish, and generally a pain in the ass to be around”.

    1. Yeah, and “PS – I could have conveyed the same message with a few bumper stickers, but I decided to pay the government a fee instead.”

  11. My plate reads: N0 GVT

    1. How clever. You actually paid the government for that. Priceless.

  12. Virginia has a specialty plate with the line “Kids First” at the top. I saw one where the license text was “EAT THE”.

  13. I would prefer not to have offensive text on license plates, but I’ve discovered that offensive stickers on cars are a good way to identify jackasses. I guess making them pay an extra few bucks to make the message more durable would be a service to other drivers.

  14. Talk about things “offensive to good taste and decency”, I give you the antics of California government.

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