N.H. Supreme Court backs ‘COPSLIE’ vanity plate, overturns lower court decision
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that the state violated an activist’s free speech rights by denying him “COPSLIE” vanity plates.
Aligning itself with the petitioner, Seacoast area resident David Montenegro, who goes by the name “human,” the court said a state law used to block the request, which prohibits plates that “a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste,” is vague and therefore prone to bias.
The law “grants (Division of Motor Vehicles) officials the power to deny a proposed vanity registration plate because it offends particular officials’ subjective idea of what is ‘good taste,’ ” Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote for the court.
The ruling overturns a 2012 decision in Strafford County Superior Court, which found the division had acted legitimately.
Montenegro, a self-proclaimed critic of government corruption, first applied for and was denied the plates in May 2010. Division officials described his message as “insulting.” He reapplied three months later, this time listing “GR8GOVT” as an alternative option. The division once more rejected the first choice, but granted the second.
Montenegro and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, which argued on his behalf, said the move was blatantly discriminatory and infringed on his free speech rights under the state Constitution.
State attorney Richard Head said employees had correctly denied the request because the message “cops lie” denigrates an entire class of people.
The case will now return to Strafford County for further action. DMV Director Richard Bailey said the division is awaiting the completion of that process before taking concrete steps to change existing policy. Any controversial requests will be taken under advisement until then, he said.
Montenegro’s plates, meanwhile, have yet to be issued.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, email@example.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)