Free Speech and Offensive License Plates: Are Plates Allowed to Insult?
Many people like to give their vehicle a little something extra that helps to make it unique. Some might add a spoiler or nice rims. Others might choose to have a custom paint job. There are countless ways to make a car truly yours. One of the common options is to have custom license plates. People might want to have a custom plate that relates to their hobby, their family, their line of work, etc. The options are just about endless.
Of course, there are also those jokers out there who want to have funny license plates. There’s usually nothing wrong with a little humor. However, when the “humor” can be classified as offensive, what happens? Should they be allowed to have the plates even though they may be considered offensive? Most of the time, the government will tell the vehicle owner that they can’t have those types of plates.
However, that’s not always the case, as evidenced in California recently. A federal judge, Jon Tigar, in CA struck down regulations banning certain personalized license plates that were not in good taste or offensive. The California Department of Motor Vehicles typically bans these types of plates, but it’s now considered to be against the First Amendment, which provides freedom of speech.
Why Was the Lawsuit Filed?
Five people in California had their plates rejected, but it was unclear to them just why they were rejected. The way the current system works, deeming something to be offensive or in poor taste tends to be subjective. They don’t contact the individual to get more information on the nature of the plate. Let’s look at a couple of the plates that were rejected to see what the DMV may have been thinking, and why they were likely wrong.
- BO11LUX – The owner of a pub in San Diego that has the motto “real beer, proper food, no bollocks” was not allowed to get his plate because the DMV believed that it was meant to be sexual.
- QUEER – Amrit Kohli is a musician and the owner of Queer Folks Records. Kohli is part of the LGBT community and wanted to reclaim the word for the community. However, the plate was rejected as it was deemed to be insulting and degrading.
- SLAAYRR – Heavy metal fans are well aware of the band Slayer. The person who wanted this plate was a huge fan. However, the DMV thought that the plate was hostile and aggressive, so they rejected it.
- OGWOOLF – The person who wanted this plate, Paul “Chris” Ogilvie—pay attention to that last name—wanted this plate. It was a combination of two of his nicknames from when he served in the military. However, the DMV objected to the use of the letters OG, which can mean original gangster and could be thought to have a gang meaning. Of course, OG also happens to be the first two letters of his last name.
One of the biggest problems that the judge and others have found is that there is no consistency when it comes to rejecting certain plates. There are other license plates on the road right now that are similar to those mentioned in the lawsuit. Because of the vague bans, the judge feared that it would allow people at the DMV to use their own personal preferences to determine what the law should be.
This change has loosened the options available for vanity plates in California. Of course, there will still be some words that will be rejected when they are truly obvious and offensive. The owners can still appeal, though, if they believe they should get their plates.