from the W8WUT dept
There aren’t many sites with “tech” in their names that provide this much discussion on the First Amendment implications of vanity plate laws. Maybe it’s just us.
Or maybe it’s just (mostly) me.
Whatever the case, I find it fascinating that so many state governments have so many restrictions on what people can express via their personalized plates, when it’s patently clear those messages are personal, rather than a form of government speech simply because the letter/number combinations are displayed on a government-issued plate.
The government is welcome to restrict its own speech. No one — not even the Constitution — cares how much the government limits its own expression. But when it reaches across this divide to govern how people can express themselves with their personal plates on their personal property, things get more complicated.
The government can’t really regulate bumper stickers or window decals. It can try, but it’s often going to be in the wrong if it decides it can regulate personal expression just because it occurs in a public space.
Most people aren’t willing to make a literal federal case out of their rejected plates. But those who do are often able to demonstrate governments are impermissibly regulating protected speech under the mistaken assumption that the delivery system utilized for these messages (state-issued license plates) allows them to bypass the Constitution.
Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles seems to be priming itself for a federal fight. It has revoked a driver’s personalized plate because it might possibly offend certain people. The plate doesn’t target any protected groups. Instead, it simply suggests certain state residents should stay in their own state, rather than wander further inland.
A Nevada motorist’s license plate is the subject of a recall by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.
A plate that reads “GOBK2CA,” or “Go back to California,” was recalled in May by the agency after it received a complaint, according to DMV spokesman Eli Rohl.
Nevada’s DMV has posted guidelines that show what is/isn’t acceptable for personalized plates. This is its list of forbidden content:
The Department will consider recalling any personalized license plate that:
- Expresses contempt, ridicule, or superiority of race, ethnic heritage, religion or gender.
- Contains any connotation that is sexual, vulgar, derogatory, profane, or obscene.
- Contains a direct or indirect reference to a drug or drug paraphernalia, or a gang.
- Makes a defamatory reference to a person or group.
This is all very overbroad, especially the last bullet point on the DMV’s list. The state is not required to prove the rejected plate is defamatory. It only has to believe it is. And this belief covers pretty much everyone everywhere with no connection at all to actual libel law.
Most people don’t actually understand defamation, preferring it to believe anything they don’t personally care for crosses the line into libel. Unfortunately, government officials, who should at least be somewhat informed about the laws and legal tenets they’re espousing/enforcing, don’t seem to have the slightest idea what defamation actually is.
Here’s the DMV’s spokeman’s defense of the DMV’s actions:
“In this case, the defamed group is Californians. Mr. Steelmon’s plate is not unique in this; we regularly turn down plates that share the same messages,” Rohl wrote in an email. “If we’ve been rejecting applications for other ‘back to California’ plates, then it’s not an equal application of the law to receive a complaint about this plate and neglect to take action on it.”
But Californians haven’t been defamed. And even if they have (they haven’t), they’re welcome (they’re not) to engage in a class action defamation lawsuit (this sort of thing doesn’t actually exist because defamation must target individuals to be actionable) against the DMV and/or the plate recipient. If there’s no legal cause of action (there isn’t) for this alleged defamation, there’s no legal basis for this DMV rule. Sure, the DMV can try to prevent drivers from defaming individuals via license plates, but it doesn’t have any legal basic for this rejection which is wholly based on defamation that simply does not exist.
Even if the DMV was in the right here (it clearly isn’t), its plate rejection track record clearly indicates its vetting crew has no idea what it’s looking for, much less what common acronyms mean. Equitable enforcement is one thing. Ignorant enforcement is quite another.
I mean, just try to wrap your head around these DMV interpretations:
BBDUBYA – requester said it was a “childhood nickname,” DMV claimed it was “drug related,” citing the presence of the letters “DUB,” which it insisted was slang for “doobie”
3RIAN – requester: “BRIAN”, DMV: “sounds like Arian – Arian Brotherhood”
H8CVD – requester: “hate COVID,” DMV: “Inappropriate: Hate Covid” [Ed. note: what the fucking fuck]
QFHR1 – requester: “quick fix home repairs,” DMV: “looks like ‘off her’ – Kill her”
BUYSHIB – requester: “Means buy forms of crypto currency) [reference to Dogecoin, which converted an internet meme into a Bitcoin also-ran], DMV: “Looks like ‘B**ch you be’ backwards” [Ed.: the goddamn fuck is going on here]
GOTRUMP – requester: “For couragement” [direct quote here, but we all know what it means], DMV: “Sexual – Got Rump, got Butt, got Ass” [never mind, the DMV doesn’t know what it means]
P0P0B8 – requester: “Police Bait” [license plate request for a “Classic Rod” plate designation], DMV: “Popo is slang for police, b8 is be ate which is slang for oral sex” [half right but then incredibly, stupidly wrong on the second half]
So, as we can clearly see, the DMV has no idea what the fuck it’s doing, much less capable of handling all these rules in an fair, nondiscriminatory, non-stupid fashion. Because it’s routinely terrible in its interpretation of plate meanings or intent, it clearly isn’t qualified to determine what is or isn’t “defamatory.” Sure, it could argue it just rejects anything its squad of under-qualified staffers deem inappropriate, but that’s only going to show it routinely engages in censorship, rather than steer clear of potential First Amendment issues.
At this point, there’s no ruling from the Ninth Circuit one way or the other on license plate programs that might prove dispositive should this Nevada resident sue. But the plate requester does at least have a federal court ruling that said California’s restrictions on personalized plates were unconstitutional. And those restrictions were even broader than the ones being misused (and misinterpreted) by Nevada’s DMV.
Going BK2CA might be the best move for Mr. Steelmon. If California can’t do it this way, odds are Nevada can’t either. If the state wants to generate federal precedent against it, it should definitely continue to prevent this driver from taking possession of his clearly lawful license plate.