Editorial: On license plates, time to loosen up
When the state Supreme Court ruled two months ago that David Montenegro was unconstitutionally denied his “COPSLIE” vanity license plates, casual onlookers might have thought the case was settled. After all, the court held that the state Division of Motor Vehicles couldn’t deny a plate because “a reasonable person would find (it) offensive to good taste.” Done and done.
Unfortunately, the division is dragging its feet in response, denying all vanity plate applications for now and working on a set of rules that seem to pose the same challenges as the previous one.
According to reporting from the Valley News, the DMV responded to the ruling by drafting a set of interim rules for vanity plates. The Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules approved those rules June 20, but the division hasn’t yet adopted them.
In the meantime, residents with the most innocuous messages imaginable – LUVDOGS, let’s say – have to wait. That seems unfair and petty, especially given that it was the division enforcing an unconstitutional rule in the first place.
And those new rules gives us pause. Again, according to the Valley News, the DMV “would prohibit language related to sex, violence, drugs, gangs or bigotry” on vanity plates.
In nearly all of these cases, the room for interpretation seems vast.
Is the plate “SXYLDY,” for instance, related to sex? Is “GUNOWNR” related to violence? How about “MEDWEED” on the car of a medicinal marijuana user? That’s surely related to drugs, right?
In each of the cases above, a division employee could reasonably deny the imagined plates. And this seems a shame for all of the SXYLDYs and GUNOWNRs out there.
We do believe that some words and messages should be barred from license plates. Curse words and overt hate speech come to mind. In each case, license plates bearing such messages could pose public safety problems. A particularly crude profanity could prove distracting in traffic. While drivers have been known to verbally share such messages, they probably shouldn’t be preserved permanently.
And hateful messages based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other such statuses shouldn’t be allowed either. While they might not distract drivers in traffic, they could lead to disturbances and altercations once drivers are parked.
Frankly, it is difficult to imagine that many residents would want to be associated with such a message to begin with.
But beyond these narrow exceptions, we’re not sure what purpose the DMV’s persnickety rule-making on vanity plates serves.
Surely it is better that the government take as much of a hands-off approach as possible when dealing with its citizens’ speech.
A state that trumpets “Live Free or Die” on its license plates can surely afford its citizens the right to choose the messages those plates bear.