California’s ban on personalized license plates that state regulators consider “offensive to good taste and decency” — like the QUEER inscription a gay man wanted for his car — violates freedom of speech, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The Department of Motor Vehicles can probably still prohibit some types of license plate lettering, such as profanity and “fighting words,” said U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar of San Francisco, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court case on a related issue. But he said the DMV can’t impose its own standards of good taste on vehicle owners who have a right to choose their own messages.
The agency’s “good taste and decency” standard creates “a facial distinction between societally favored and disfavored ideas,” Tigar said. As the Supreme Court put it in a 2017 case allowing an Asian American rock band to call itself the Slants, he said, “the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”
“This is a great day for our clients and the 250,000 Californians that seek to express their messages on personalized license plates each year,” said attorney Wen Fa of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which sued in March on behalf of vehicle owners whose plates were rejected. “Vague bans on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”
The DMV said it was reviewing the ruling and declined further comment. After Tigar refused to dismiss the suit in July, the DMV indicated it was likely to appeal.
California issues license plates with personalized lettering for $53, and renewal fees of $43, with most of the revenue going to environmental projects. Owners who want a personalized plate must provide three options, with explanations of each one, and can appeal denials to a DMV analyst, whose decision is final.
One plaintiff in the case is a gay Oakland man who owns Queer Folks Records. The DMV told him his proposed QUEER plate “may be considered insulting, degrading, or expressing contempt for a specific group or person.”
Another plaintiff, from Concord, is an Army veteran who said his proposal, OGWOOLF, combined his military nickname, OG, and his love of wolves. The DMV told him OG was a common name for “original gangster.”
In arguing for dismissal of the suit, the DMV said the state-issued plates were a statement by the government, which was free to control their content. But Tigar said the plates are a type of expression by the vehicle owner, not the state, and therefore are protected by the constitutional guarantee of free speech.
The state can still apply restrictions that are “viewpoint-neutral and reasonable,” Tigar said. But he said “good taste and decency” do not meet that standard.
“Not regulating for taste means allowing speech that many — including this court — might find in poor taste or even offensive,” Tigar said. But, he said, quoting novelist John Irving in a 1997 magazine interview, “you can’t say you’re going to ban something in the name of good taste, because then you have directed someone to play the role of good-taste police.”
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