Editorial: Do we really need state-issued vanity plates?
At the risk of sounding like the biggest grouches of the 21st century, here’s a question worth pondering: Does the state government really need to be in the business of issuing vanity plates? Do motorists really need the option of telling the world (for a small fee) how much they love their grandchildren or the Red Sox or Elvis from an official state-issued piece of aluminum?
Yes, yes, vanity plates are popular, but last week’s arguments before the state Supreme Court got us wondering if they’re really worth the hassle.
At issue is the case of a man formerly known as David Montenegro. He was before the court because the state Division of Motor Vehicles had rejected his request for a vanity plate that said “COPSLIE.” In the state’s view, the man’s message conflicts with community standards of morality and violated the notion of “good taste.” In the man’s view, the state’s ruling was arbitrary and violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
To prove his point, after “COPSLIE” was rejected, the man resubmitted his application with a number of alternative suggestions. The state approved one that said “GR8GOVT” – proof to him that the state’s position was not “viewpoint neutral.”
What the justices will now have to wrestle with is whether the state’s standards are straightforward or ambiguous. Do they rely too much on the particular notions of individual DMV workers? Are they fair? Are they subjective? Would 10 DMV workers all come to the same conclusion about most vanity plate applications, or are the rules too murky? On the state website where motorists can apply for a vanity plate, the rules suggest mainly that you get seven characters and “certain letter/character combinations, such as H8” are prohibited.
It’s easy to imagine the Supreme Court ordering the state to come up with better rules. And it’s easy to imagine some future motorist again testing the boundaries – and the courts once again pondering just how offensive is too offensive.
This is not just a New Hampshire issue, of course. South Dakota once threatened to take away a woman’s plate that advocated for George W. Bush’s impeachment, but then relented. Florida officials once flip-flopped over whether an atheist was able to use the word “atheist” on his plates.
Maybe it would be better if the state phased out the vanity plates altogether. Maybe it would be better if state workers weren’t made to be the decorum police. Many motorists, after all, get along just fine with a nondescript jumble of numbers and letters. If they want to let the world know about their politics, their religion, their family, they use bumper stickers – which, offensive or otherwise, don’t need the government’s blessing.
Far-fetched, perhaps. A 2007 study on vanity plates across the country determined that they were more popular in New Hampshire than in 48 other states. (We were second only to Virginia.) So it’s admittedly hard to imagine the governor who would want to be at the helm when such a switch took place. But the current setup seems especially designed for unnecessary friction.