Indiana Supreme Court Says Cop Can't Have His '01NK' License Plate

from the and-the-government-can-handle-plate-requests-however-the-hell-it-wants dept

Earlier this year, a police officer and the ACLU performed a "strange bedfellows" act in hopes of overturning Indiana's Bureau of Motor Vehicle's rejection of the officer's vanity license plate request. Rodney Vawter, a rare law enforcement officer capable of enjoying a laugh at his own expense (literally/figuratively), applied for a plate reading "01NK." The BMV gave it to him. Three years later, it changed its mind, claiming the plate was now "offensive."

Vawter took the BMV to court, claiming the agency's denial of his plate infringed on his free speech. The BMV countered that it could pretty much do whatever it wanted, right up until a district court judge called its scattershot approval process ('BIBLE4ME" - OK. "UNHOLY" - rejected, etc.) unconstitutional. The BMV, rather than adjust its process, simply stopped issuing plates until the issue could be fully resolved.

The state's Supreme Court has delivered the final word on the BMV's actions. It's bad news for Vawter, who won't be getting his "01NK" plate back. (h/t Free Thought Project)

The court found that, while speech is indeed at the center of this case, it's the government's speech that's being regulated, not citizens'. And the government can regulate its own speech however it wants.

Indiana's personalized license plates are government speech. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles, therefore, does not violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments in denying an application for a PLP or revoking a previously issued PLP. Furthermore, Due Process Clause protections do not apply because vehicle owners do not have a property interest in their personalized license plates.
In arriving at this conclusion, the court made a number of supporting determinations, some more solid than others. Most curiously, it stated the limited "message" space on a license plate provides a forum too "limited" for protected speech.
Furthermore, the nature of Indiana's PLPs is not compatible with expressive activity. Because PLPs are small and contain a maximum of eight characters, they cannot realistically promote meaningful discourse, communication, and debate.
(And yet, "Fuck the draft" is only 12 characters [with spaces removed] and was recognized as protected speech by the Supreme Court of the United States. Eight letters isn't "discourse," but twelve is?)

It also found that government-issued plates are still government speech, even if individuals obtain plates with their own "messages" on them. While most people recognize the fact that a state agency issues license plates, they associate the messages on vanity plates to be representative of the person driving the car, rather than the entity that printed the plate. The court shrugs this off by saying it's not its fault if observers jump to the wrong "speech" conclusion.
PLPs do not cease to be government speech simply because some observers may fail to recognize that PLP alphanumeric combinations are government issued and approved speech in every instance. [...] The alphanumeric combination, regardless of its content, is government speech specifically identifying a single vehicle.
So, the BMV's highly-inconsistent approval process is once again "Constitutional," but only because it's the government regulating its "own" speech, even if there's a private citizen's personal request somewhere in the middle of all the regulation. No "01NK" plate for Officer Vawter and no plates for other members of the public whose requests somehow "offend" the sensibilities of the BMV office drone processing the paperwork.

Filed Under: free speech, indiana, indiana bmv, o1nk, police, rodney vawter


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  • identicon
    Scote, 23 Nov 2015 @ 3:40pm

    WTF?

    If it is "government speech" how, exactly, are the license plates personalized? If it were government speech the government would pick the verbiage and *assign* it to you, as it does with regular plates.

    Clearly the judge was working backwards from its preferred outcome, not forward based on constitutional principles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      crade (profile), 23 Nov 2015 @ 4:32pm

      Re: WTF?

      Look on the bright side, you get to put words in the Govt's mouth..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      art guerrilla (profile), 23 Nov 2015 @ 4:46pm

      Re: WTF?

      not only that, but YOU are PAYING (extra) for the gummint to put that on the plate; in effect, they are a merely a printing press...
      are printers now claiming they own every book they print, and will determine what does/doesnt' go in it ? ? ?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Techanon, 23 Nov 2015 @ 6:26pm

        Re: Re: WTF?

        are printers now claiming they own every book they print, and will determine what does/doesnt' go in it ? ? ?


        Yes, they are.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 11:28pm

        Re: Re: WTF?

        are printers now claiming they own every book they print, and will determine what does/doesnt' go in it ? ? ?


        I would certainly defend the right of a publisher to decide what they do or do not want to publish, even if the material is not written by them. They don't own the book, but they do own their own presses and should be able to control how they are used.

        The speech implications in denying a license plate are very limited. There's nothing that you can put on a plate that you can't just put on a bumper sticker, or the plate holder.

        I'm baffled that they find "01NK" offensive. But it's not like they're suppressing that message in any meaningful way by disallowing it on the plate.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    strixtle (profile), 23 Nov 2015 @ 3:43pm

    Seems Consistent...

    ...with the most recent Supreme Court ruling regarding custom plate decorations:

    http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/walker-v-texas-division-sons-of-confederate-v eterans-inc/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 3:48pm

    agree with scote exactly. .this whole thing is backward.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    glac.elf, 23 Nov 2015 @ 3:51pm

    If it's the government's speech...

    ... will there be issues with religious messages?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 23 Nov 2015 @ 4:19pm

      Re: If it's the government's speech...

      This was my thought. This decision may end up causing the BMV more pain than the expect. If it's government speech, then their combined act of allowing BIBLE4ME while disallowing UNHOLY seems to smack directly into the forbidden act of supporting one religion over others.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 23 Nov 2015 @ 7:12pm

      Schrodinger's Plate

      It's the government's speech when it comes to deciding what is and is not allowed on the plate.

      It's the driver's speech when it comes to any potential legal challenges related to what's on the plate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Violynne (profile), 24 Nov 2015 @ 3:12am

      Re: If it's the government's speech...

      There are already issues with religious plates.

      A few years ago, Indiana released its "in god we trust" license plates, and it's been a problem since.

      First: Indiana releases these plates as the default unless the person expressly states otherwise, which is absolute bullshit. It should be the non-verbiage version that's the default, and those who want the other should be required to ask for it.

      Second: as noted by many who applied, any religious personal text plates, which aren't under this "god", have been wholly rejected. The reason: it's considered inflammatory (most likely to their religion).

      Third: since when is a fucking government allowed to dictate what religion it pushes for its plates? That's the big problem, but of course, the ISC said, "Because the state can, now shut the fuck up and pay the country's highest excise tax on plates."


      This is just another ruling in a long list of other issues run by racist, bible-thumping assholes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 24 Nov 2015 @ 3:48am

        Subtle as a sledgehammer

        Second: as noted by many who applied, any religious personal text plates, which aren't under this "god", have been wholly rejected. The reason: it's considered inflammatory (most likely to their religion).

        'The state is allowed to shove the preferred religion of those running it down the throats of everyone else, but you're not allowed to even attempt to do the same with another religion'.

        Hypocrisy and double-standards much?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 4:02pm

    Maybe Alan Ellis should have applied for a trademark.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 4:36pm

    Indiana is one of the worst states to live in if you value your civil rights.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    psiuuuuu, 23 Nov 2015 @ 5:04pm

    Only seven letters to say

    "Fuck you" in court.

    Yet I would argue that it would be expressive, as well as meaningfully communicating the heartfelt sentiments of many, when confronted with a judge who accidentally ate their high schooler's special brownies while crafting a decision.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 8:08pm

    Government Speech vs 1st Amendment

    If license plates are government speech, then isn't it a violation of the first amendment to force people to put it on their cars?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2015 @ 9:27am

      Re: Government Speech vs 1st Amendment

      If license plates are government speech, then isn't it a violation of the first amendment to force people to put it on their cars?
      If it contains a message, then yes (in New Hampshire).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2015 @ 1:06pm

        Re: Re: Government Speech vs 1st Amendment

        If it contains a message, then yes (in New Hampshire).

        Yeah, it depends on the state. Apparently, the bill of rights is optional, depending on the state. Some opt out.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Whoever, 23 Nov 2015 @ 9:00pm

    If it's not expressive...

    If it's not expressive, then how can it offend anyone? If it can't offend anyone, then the DMV should not refuse it on the grounds given.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 9:42pm

    It is not unconstitutional to deny you your rights, because we say it isn't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2015 @ 11:06pm

    Vawter should buy www.o1nk.com, and post opinions about the ruling to "realistically promote meaningful discourse, communication, and debate."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nomad of Norad, 24 Nov 2015 @ 12:14am

    Can this be appealed....

    Can this be appealed to a higher court, and all the way to the US Supreme Court, or is this the end of the line for this one? oO

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Paul, 24 Nov 2015 @ 1:09am

    the judge is part of the government system,

    part of the mafia.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2015 @ 5:08am

    And yet, "Fuck the draft" is only 12 characters [with spaces removed] and was recognized as protected speech by the Supreme Court of the United States. Eight letters isn't "discourse," but twelve is?

    FKDDRAFT

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Cressman, 24 Nov 2015 @ 5:52am

    Must have Apple employees

    As someone who has been on the receiving end of Apple's app approval process (or disapproval process) and the arbitrary and inconsistent app approval process.

    Sounds like the same BS - depending on who you get, your app may or may not get approved or in this case, your license plate may or may not get approved.

    I think these things are more easily accepted if there are some hard and fast standards rather than just off the cuff decisions based on the reviewers personal experiences, beliefs and "feelings that day".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bobbert, 24 Nov 2015 @ 6:35am

    f the draft

    "F_t_draft" is only 9 characters

    also... txt abbr not 3 spch?
    (yes, I'm not good at abbreviating text)
    but you know what I mean.. :-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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