Reason Roundup

Offensive License Plates Are Free Speech, Court Tells California

Plus: National Labor Relations Board rules against The Federalist, France is getting less free, and more...

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QUEER, SLAAYRR license plates are OK, says judge. Thanks to the First Amendment, the state of California can't ban residents from vanity license plate messages that it deems "offensive to good taste and decency." A federal court ruled Tuesday that the state rule was an unconstitutional restriction on free expression.

The case against the California Department of Motor Vehicles—heard by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California— was brought by five people who were told their choices of vanity plate messages were off-limits. The five plaintiffs were represented by the libertarian law firm Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF).

"Vague bans on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law," said PLF's Wen Fa in a statement.

One of the people who filed the suit is a gay man who owns a record company called Queer Folks Records. He was originally told that he couldn't get a license plate saying QUEER because it was an insult.

Another plaintiff—who loves the band Slayer—was denied a SLAAYRR license plate because the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) said the message was "threatening, aggressive or hostile."

The DMV told plaintiff Paul Ogilvie that he couldn't get a plate combining the first letters of his last name and his favorite animal— OGWOOLF—because OG can be slang for original gangster.

Another plaintiff was denied DUK N A plate because the DMV said it sounded too much like an obscene phrase, even if it wasn't itself obscene. And BO11LUX (which looks to me like a play on the exclamation "Bollocks!") was declared by the DMV to be too sexual.

But U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar sided with the plaintiffs, saying the state's ban on plate messages with "connotations offensive to good taste and decency" is unconstitutional.

Tigar pointed to a recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of the band The Slants, who won a fight with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office over their name.

"Tigar did say the DMV could probably be permitted to deny plates that are, for instance, obscene, profane or contain hate speech because they fall outside of First Amendment protections," notes the Associated Press.

You can read the judge's full ruling here. The case is Ogilvie v. Gordon.


FREE MINDS

"France will soon be a far less free country than it is now," warns Mira Kamdar at The Atlantic. The country is considering three worrisome new laws. The first, adopted last week, is "a bill that sets the research budget for French universities for the next decade" as well as "targets student protests and took a stab at academic freedom," explains Kamdar:

The bill includes a provision criminalizing on-campus gatherings that 'trouble the tranquility and good order of the establishment' with a fine of up to 45,000 euros and a prison term of up to three years. An amendment requiring that academic research hew to the 'values of the Republic' was scrapped only at the last minute, after strong pushback by scholars who feared that its intent was to restrict freedom of inquiry….

A second piece of legislation, a global-security bill introduced on November 17, aims to give the police a freer hand….

If all that weren't bad enough, a third bill, designed to fulfill Macron's vision for tackling Islamist radicalism outlined in an October 2 speech on "separatism," is scheduled for consideration by his cabinet on December 9. Dubbed the "Confirming Republican Principles" bill, it would assign all French children a tracking number to enforce compulsory attendance in public or government-recognized schools, putting an end to homeschooling and unaccredited religious schools, and ensuring that all children are educated in the values of the French Republic. The bill also criminalizes sharing identifying information about a public servant that could be used to inflict harm—a response to the fact that private information about Paty was shared on social media, allowing his assassin to track him down. The new offense will be punishable by up to three years in prison and a 45,000-euro fine. Another provision would criminalize, and punish by up to five years in prison, "threats, violence or intimidation of a public official…for motives drawn from convictions or beliefs." Some jurists fear the wording is so vague that it could be used to convict people for what amounts to justified criticism of a public official.


FREE MARKETS

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that a joke tweet by Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, violates federal labor law. It's part of a disturbing trend of the NLRB policing tweets. More from Bloomberg Law:

The publisher of conservative online magazine The Federalist unlawfully threatened workers when he said via Twitter that he'd send them "back to the salt mine" if they attempted to form a union, the National Labor Relations Board held.

"We find that employees would reasonably view the message as expressing an intent to take swift action against any employee who tried to unionize the Respondent," the NLRB said in a ruling Tuesday. "In addition, the reference to sending that employee 'back to the salt mine' reasonably implied that the response would be adverse."

The agency in recent years has policed high-profile executives' anti-union language on social media, citing Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk for a tweet and reaching a settlement with Barstool Sports co-founder David Portnoy that required the deletion of offending tweets.

The decision upholds an administrative law judge's ruling that FDRLST Media publisher Ben Domenech's tweet violated federal labor law. The board ordered Domenech to delete the "salt mine" statement from his personal Twitter account.


QUICK HITS

• A new study from University College London researchers finds no evidence that some strains of COVID-19 spread more easily than others. "None of the mutations currently documented in the SARS-CoV-2 virus appear to increase its transmissibility in humans," the study reports.

• You can check in on who Biden has appointed to his Cabinet here. So far, the choices are…not great.

• Here's an interesting and eloquent exploration of a prestigious happiness researcher who killed himself.

• A new documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, looks at the life of a woman who recorded local TV news segments on VCR tapes, all day, for 33 years. "Some have labelled Stokes a hoarder, but many remember her as an activist and visionary ahead of her time," writes Daisy Schofield at Huck magazine.

• In Kentucky, more than one in every 10 children has had a parent in jail or prison.

• New Jersey police will have to start wearing body cameras.

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