California can’t enforce ban on offensive license plates, judge rules


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California drivers will now be allowed to show off their vanity plates even if the state deems them “offensive to good taste and decency.”

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles could not enforce a ban on certain personal messages because it violates freedom of speech. The case, filed in March, was ruled in favor of five California residents who sued after not being allowed to display their messages on personalized license plates, Fox News reported.

The state DMV policy held that vanity license plates can’t carry “connotations offensive to good taste and decency.” But the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit against DMV Director Steve Gordon, challenging the policy on free-speech grounds.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar decided that the messages were examples of personal expression, not “government speech,” citing Supreme Court cases and ruling that any regulations “must be both viewpoint-neutral and reasonable.”

(Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

License plates that may contain obscene, profane expressions or hate speech, however, may still be denied by the DMV because, as the judge noted, they fall outside of the protections of the First Amendment.

According to the lawsuit which was filed in federal court in San Francisco, in 2018 more than 30,000 out of nearly 250,000 applications were denied by the department due to its view that they could be deemed offensive.

“This broad and vague regulation requires four full-time DMV administrators police license plate applications,” the lawsuit argued. Those denials “deprive plaintiffs their right to freedom of speech, in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

U.S. Army veteran Paul “Chris” Ogilvie of Concord was one of the plaintiffs in the case who was denied his application to have a plate using the first two letters of his last name and an old nickname. The DMV determined that the OG in the OGWOOLF plate would be seen as short for “original gangster.”

The other plaintiffs in the suit were also denied their plates, as noted by the Associated Press:

— “DUK N A,” which the lawsuit says is short for Ducati motorcycles and Andrea, the first name of plaintiff Andrea Campanile. The department said it sounds like an obscene phrase.

— “BO11UX,” though the lawsuit says “bullocks” has been used to mean “nonsense” in a national advertising campaign.

— “SLAAYRR,” which it says is a reference to the metal band

— “QUEER,” which it says is a reference to the plaintiff’s sexual orientation and his record label, Queer Folks Records, which he adopted in an effort to reclaim what has become a pejorative label.

 

“This is a great day for our clients and the 250,000 Californians that seek to express their messages on personalized license plates each year,” attorney Wen Fa of the Pacific Legal Foundation said in a statement after the ruling Tuesday. “Vague bans on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”

Reactions to the ruling were shared on Twitter where many agreed that now “Traffic will be entertaining.”

Frieda Powers

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