California’s Ban on Offensive Vanity Plates Overruled by Federal Judge

Thank a Slayer fan: It's poop joke time, baby!

AP Images

Was your "BEMYBAE" or "HUF4RTD" vanity license plate denied in California? Good news! A federal judge ruled Tuesday that California's ban on license plates that state officials consider “offensive to good taste and decency” is unenforceable, the Associated Press reports. According to the judge, the ban violates applicants' First Amendment-protected freedom of speech. 

The lawsuit was filed in March against California Department of Motor Vehicles Director Steve Gordon by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of five Californians whose preferred plate messages were denied. The reasons for the plates' denials were based on the judgement calls of state officials, as the Associated Press writes: 

They included a gay man in Oakland who owns Queer Folks Records and wanted to use the word “QUEER" but was refused because the DMV said that might be considered insulting; a fan of the rock band Slayer who was notified that “SLAAYRR” would be considered “threatening, aggressive or hostile” and an Army veteran who wanted to note his nickname and love of wolves with “OGWOOLF” but was refused because the DMV said the OG might be construed as a reference to “original gangster."

Others were refused because their plates might look or sound like a swear word or might be construed as sexual, according to the judge’s ruling.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that California's ban violated the applicants' freedom of speech as the messages on license plates are considered public speech—not government speech. The ruling was based on the precedent set by a 2017 Supreme Court case where an Asian-American rock band was allowed to use the name The Slants, as public speech can't be banned just because it's viewed as offensive by some. Californian DMV officials, he argued, were ruling on plates based on their own subjective notions of good taste, which wasn't fair. 

This also isn't the only federal court case to knock down a license plate denial based on a person's right to free speech. In February, a Kentucky man prevailed against the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's denial of a license plate reading "IM GOD." Kentucky initially denied the plate based on a similar rule against messages that were "obscene, vulgar or in bad taste."

That being said, Judge Tigar noted that the California DMV would be allowed to block messages on vanity plates that weren't protected by the First Amendment—namely, those that are profane, obscene or that include some form of hate speech. So, don't expect California to be cool with Maine-style plates that you cannot quote to your mother anytime soon. 

If it holds up as a precedent, this ruling could knock down similar vanity plate rules that exist in many other states across the country. I might finally be able to label my VW appropriately as a "POOPCAR" here in Texas! Great success. 

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