State Supreme Court hears arguments on controversial 'COPSLIE' vanity plate
If the man formerly known as David Montenegro were to boil every complaint he has ever harbored for the New Hampshire state government into a cogent, seven-character sound bite, and then imprint that on the front and back of his car, it would be “COPSLIE.”
In fact, for the past three years, he’s been trying to do just that. But the Rochester resident and soft-spoken critic of what he describes as systemic state government corruption has run into a series of obstacles, first at the Division of Motor Vehicles, and then with a judge in Strafford County Superior Court.
The problem, he said, is that the DMV violated his First Amendment rights by subjectively denying him vanity plates because, in their reading, the phrase “cops lie” is “offensive to good taste.” The state has insisted that denying Montenegro his plates was the correct move, because the message he sought to convey conflicts with community standards of morality.
Yesterday, the debate reached the highest court in the state. Wearing a patterned tie and worn brown hiking boots, Montenegro, who legally changed his name last year to “human” – lowercase “h” – told justices at the state Supreme Court that his case should have never made it so far.
“It’s so simple,” he said.
At times, the justices appeared to agree, taking issue less with the phrase “cops lie” and more with a state statute barring vanity plates that don’t seem in “good taste.”
“What is ‘good taste?’ ” asked Justice Carol Ann Conboy. “That is the nub of the argument.”
Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis said the standard seemed overly ambiguous.
“If the person at the DMV happened to agree with the sentiment, by chance – said, ‘You know what, this isn’t offensive to me’ – then he gets the plate,” Dalianis told the state’s attorney, Richard Head.
“In the first round, I don’t disagree,” Head replied. “There is an initial screening and, but there’s also a process . . .”
“But that’s part of the problem,” Dalianis interjected. “This regulation strikes me as vague enough to become completely subjective.”
Head continued: “There’s actually a process for those plates to be revoked.”
“For example,” he said, “there’s a plate, ‘3MTA3.’ That’s a plate that if you look at and say that’s an interesting plate, and it goes through.”
“Until you look at it in the rearview mirror,” Justice Gary Hicks said.
“Exactly, your honor,” Head replied. “And that is a plate that can be revoked.”
“Certainly these particular kind of plates get through,” he added. “But if you get enough complaints about them, then you’re going to re-evaluate it.”
But Justice Robert Lynn told Anthony Galdieri, an attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union who human deferred to for most of his allotted argument, that he could see a reason to ban a phrase such as “cops lie.”
“Under your view on the regulation, as it now exists, not only would COPSLIE be okay, but I can think of several other four-letter things that go before ‘lie,’ ” Lynn said. “For example, ‘WHTS’ – whites lie – or ‘BLKS’ – blacks lie – or ‘JEWS’ – Jews lie. Would that be okay for anyone to come along and say I want to put that on (my car)?”
“Under the current standard, we don’t know,” Galdieri said. “The standard is basically incapable of definition.”
When Montenegro first applied for the plates in May 2010, a division employee refused the request, reasoning that what he hoped to display was “insulting,” according to court documents. Montenegro appealed to the division’s director and to the state commissioner of safety, and he received a similar response.
Unsatisfied, he reapplied to the division, this time requesting the same plates, but including alternative choices, which he ranked from most to least preferred: “GR8GOVT”; “LUVGOVT”; “GOVTSUX”; “SEALPAC”; “GOVTLAZ.”
Division officials once again denied “COPSLIE,” but they okayed “GR8GOVT.”
Montenegro then turned to the courts, arguing last year that vanity plates constitute a public forum, and that the division had unfairly refused him plates that were critical of government, while granting him others that praised it.
The court upheld the division’s decision, ruling that the plates were government property and can therefore be regulated as long as that regulation remains viewpoint neutral.
Head said after the arguments yesterday that the division had made the right decision.
“It’s not a matter of opinion,” he said of the plates in question. “It’s an accusation of an entire class of officers relating to their morality.”
Asked whether he thinks the phrase is offensive to police officers, human said the point is to ask the question in the first place.
It “really just depends,” he said, “on whether or not you’re a cop who lies.”
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)