U.S District Judge Jon Tigar ruled Tuesday that California’s ban on “offensive” vanity license plates is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, which helped facilitate the suit, celebrated the ruling.
Today, Californians can feel a little freer.
A federal judge agreed with us that censorship of personalized license plates is absurd and unconstitutional.
— Pacific Legal ????⚖️ (@PacificLegal) November 24, 2020
“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,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Wen Fa said in a statement. “Vague bans on offensive speech allows bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”
California state law allows the DMV to reject any vanity plate that uses “any combination of letters or numbers, or both, that may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.” (RELATED: FLASHBACK: Biden Transition Leader Says He Wants To Restrict Free Speech)
Five California residents who were denied their requested personalized license plates sued the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Paul Ogilvie, an Army veteran, requested his license plate read “OGWOOLF,” a reference to his military nickname “OG” and “his long-time interest in wolves,” according to the ruling. However, the DMV denied the plate because they determined it “contained a gang reference.”
Another plaintiff in the case, James Blair, requested his license plate read “SLAAYRR” in reference to the rock band ‘Slayer,’ according to the filing. The DMV rejected his submission, noting the plate “may be considered threatening, aggressive, or hostile.”
Three others sued, arguing that state laws restricting license plate personalizations “imposes content-based and viewpoint-based restrictions on speech,” and is therefore unconstitutional.
Tigar pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Matal v. Tam, a case that dealt with the issue of whether or not the government had the right to prohibit the registration of trademarks that are racially disparaging. The high court effectively ruled that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment and that the government could not prohibit the registration of trademarks that may be deemed offensive.
Tigar also referenced Iancu v. Brunetti, in which Supreme Court found that a law prohibiting the registration of “immoral or scandalous” trademarks infringes on the First Amendment.
Tigar found that the DMV’s enforcement of the law is an unreasonable restriction on free speech because the provisions do not provide any “reasoned application,” and that there is no set criteria to determine what counts as ‘offensive’.
“Because there is no objective, workable standard of what is ‘offensive to good taste and decency,’ different reviewers can reach opposing conclusions on whether a certain configuration should be rejected based on their judgment of what might be ‘offensive’ or not in ‘good taste’,” Tigar wrote.
The judge also found that the personalized plates were not “government speech” but rather personal expression and therefore any regulation governing freedom of expression must be “viewpoint-neutral and reasonable.”