A federal court has ruled that the First Amendment trumps California’s interpretation of “good taste and decency” so the state cannot censor customized license plates based on its own values.
But it still can prohibit terms considered to be “obscenity, vulgarity, profanity, hate speech and fighting words.”
The ruling comes from U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in a case handled by the Pacific Legal Foundation for several individuals whose requests for plates were rejected.
The PLF explained, for example, “Chris Ogilvie applied for a personalized license plate reading ‘OGWOOLF,’ a reference to Ogilvie’s nickname in the military. The DMV rejected his application on the grounds that ‘OG’ means ‘original gangster,’ which the DMV said was offensive to good taste and decency.”
“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 PLF attorney Wen Fa. “Vague bans on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”
Another involved in the case was James Blair, a lifelong fan of the band Slayer, who wanted “SLAAYRR” on his plate.
The court decision said, “The court declares that Section 206.00(c)(7)(d)’s ban of personalized license plate configurations ‘offensive to good taste and decency’ violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court therefore enjoins defendant – including his officers, servants and employees – from enforcing the ‘offensive to good taste and decency’ provision.”
“Laws that give government officials discretion to ban speech they find offensive lead to senseless results,” Wen Fa explainer earlier. “Chris earned his nickname through years of service to our country, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to express that in a personalized license plate.”
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The legal team explained: “After Chris Ogilvie was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army following four tours overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, he bought a new car and applied for a personalized license plate that read ‘OGWOOLF.’ The plate simply tied in his military nickname, OG, and his nickname at home, Woolf.
“Ogilvie was shocked and furious when the California DMV rejected his license-plate application, alleging that OG is short for ‘original gangster’ and too offensive for motorists. To Ogilvie, the personalized plate also represented a very important form of self-expression protected by the same Constitution that he defended during his years of service.”
The filing said “DUK N A” for Ducati and Andrea was refused “because it sounded like an obscene phrase.”
“Personalized license plate configurations on Environmental License Plates reflect the applicant’s personal expression,” the filing said, arguing the state is restricting an individual’s First Amendment free speech rights.
The filing noted that the state collects some $60 million a year from its plate program. But some 30,000 applications are rejected each year because the message is deemed offensive.
The court ruling cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions that disallowed language restrictions because they were based on a viewpoint – either favored or disfavored.
The now-rejected state standard had, in fact, “set up a facial distinction between societelly favored and disfavored ideas,” the judge found.