Vanity License Plates and State Decency Laws: Is Your Car Indecent?

Vanity License Plates and State Decency Laws: Is Your Car Indecent?

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

Reading license plates along the highway can turn into a real-life version of the old television game show "Bumper Stumpers." Contestants had to decipher a license plate's cleverly arranged letters and numbers. Our roads are full of these so-called "vanity plates." Across the span of the plate, motorists can express emotions, states of mind, and beliefs. This includes allegiance to a university ("DUKE98" in North Carolina ) and hatred for a rival ("CAVSUCK" in Virginia ). Be advised, however, that in Vermont, they don't want to read "SHTHPNS," even if your intended message is to encourage others to "Shout Happiness!"

The history of personalized plates dates back to 1937 when Connecticut allowed safe drivers to choose their plates' letters. The widespread availability of vanity plates, however, didn't kick in until the 1950s and 1960s, the times of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The popularity of the trendy tags has been growing ever since, raking in an estimated $100 million across the U.S. Today, all states offer personalized plates. But along with privilege comes restriction.

The battle over vanity plates centers on the question of whether the unique set of letters and/or numbers on a given plate is individual expression or government speech. And this question has still not been definitively decided. Government officials say that because they issue the plates, they can regulate the messages. If plates are classified as private speech, however, the government does not have the power to restrict an individual's license plate viewpoint.

So what are the lines of acceptability? It depends on your state. Generally, what is "offensive to good taste and decency" is off limits. That still leaves a lot of wiggle room though. Some states specifically bar references to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. This left retired wine merchant Michael Higgins high and dry in Oregon when his requests for "VINO," "IN VINO," and "WINE" were denied. On similar grounds, South Carolina nixed "PUSHER" and "DEALER," and Florida just said "no" to "ON DRUGS." Moreover, many states are turned off by sexual references, so there's no "EZLAY" in California or "QUICKEE" in Florida

Vermont forbids messages that "might be offensive or confusing to the general public." A regulation used to interpret this guideline bans "combinations of letter or numbers that refer in any language to a race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or political affiliation." Accordingly, Carol Martin's luck ran out when her plate request for "IRISH1" was denied. She took her case to Vermont 's highest court, where she donned a green dress and shamrock-covered headband. The court ruled that the agency's own regulation added more restrictions than the statute's language, and Martin was awarded her plate.

Interestingly, unlike Vermont, many states have no problem with the expression of religious beliefs. In Illinois, you'll find, both plain and with numbers attached, several JESUS, CHRIST, and ALLAH. In Florida, one owner has had both "ALL4GOD" and "GOD4ALL" for over 15 years. In Virginia, "GODZGUD" was rejected at first but later judged roadworthy.

But try to express your lack of belief in God. In Illinois, Florida, and Virginia, the requests for "ATHEIST" plates caused a stir. Virginia and Illinois both decided "atheist" was obscene but then relented after legal pressure. Based on the petition of about a dozen concerned citizens, Florida recalled the "ATHEIST" plate after it had been on the road for 16 years, declaring its message "obscene or objectionable." The plate was later reinstated after the owner contacted the ACLU and a series of protests ensued.

The process for approving your plate can be lengthy or quick. In South Carolina, for example, as many as four people in the "Personalized Plates Department" look at an application before a plate is accepted. The last line of defense, though, rests in a peculiar place: The Columbia Department of Corrections Prison Industries. Because inmates make license plates, they snag potential offenders who slipped through the cracks, often picking up on what a DMV spokesperson called "prison slang."

For many of us, decoding the plates provides a pleasant distraction on the OPNRD. Until the SPRMCT rules on whether the plates constitute government or private speech, though, we will continue to see litigation concerning plates alleged to be FNSV, as the government tries to RSPCT an individual's right of freedom of expression and prevent TRBL in the general public.

And we can all play real-life BMPR STMPRS along the way.