Dover man headed to Supreme Court over license plate message

Last modified: 4/18/2013 8:17:12 AM
Three years ago, Dover resident David Montenegro submitted an application to the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles for a pair of personalized license plates, or vanity plates. Montenegro, an outspoken critic of the police and government behavior, had one particular seven-character message in mind: “COPSLIE.”

“If I had to condense all the problems with government into a sound bite that would fit on a license plate, COPSLIE would be it,” Montenegro, who has since legally changed his name to “human,” said in an interview Friday.

Division employees were not amused by the request. They promptly denied the application, reasoning that the statement “cops lie” was, according to legal documents, “insulting.”

In response to the initial rejection, Montenegro wrote the division’s director and the state commissioner of safety, requesting that they overturn it. But both agreed with the denial, the director writing that “a reasonable person would find COPSLIE offensive to good taste.”

Unsatisfied, Montenegro applied once again to the department for the plates, but this time he included a list of alternative choices, which he ranked from most to least preferred: “GR8GOVT”; “LUVGOVT”; “GOVTSUX”; “SEALPAC”; “GOVTLAZ.” The point, he said, was to determine whether the department had acted objectively in denying his initial request.

When his first choice was again denied but his second selection, “GR8GOVT,” was approved, Montenegro believed he had evidence that the department had acted arbitrarily and therefore violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

“It’s not viewpoint neutral,” he said of the two decisions. “They allowed a license plate that praised government while at the same time restricting one that is critical of government.”

Division of Motor Vehicles Director Richard Bailey did not return a request for comment.

Montenegro then turned to the courts early last year, arguing in part that vanity plates constitute a public forum. But a superior court judge in July 2012 sided with the department, ruling that the plates are government property and can therefore be regulated as long as that regulation remains viewpoint neutral.

The department did not discriminate against Montenegro’s views, Strafford County Superior Court Judge John Lewis wrote in his decision. Rather, it acted “to keep express accusations of lying, or other moral turpitude, whether directed at any individual or any class of persons, from becoming something that may appear on vanity plates.

Human, as he is now known, is preparing to appeal that decision before the state Supreme Court later this year. In a somewhat atypical move, the court last week began soliciting amicus briefs – opinion statements from the public – on the case’s principal issue: In denying Montenegro the plates “on the basis that a reasonable person would find it offensive to good taste,” did the division violate his right to free speech?

The Supreme Court has solicited amicus briefs in just four cases since 2010, said spokeswoman Laura Kiernan. In other cases, amicus briefs can be submitted but only when approved by the judge and both parties involved. According to the court’s website, briefs are solicited when the court wants to hear public input on what the full “ramifications” of a forthcoming decision could be.

Barbara Keshen, staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said last week that her organization was considering filing a brief on the case.

“What I’ve seen so far makes me think it was content based – someone simply did not like what was said,” Keshen said of COPSLIE. “And you can’t have a regulation that allows the government to suppress speech based on its content, except in extreme cases, like pornography.”

Other instances in which speech is restricted include when it incites violence, is defamatory or obscene.

“This license plate falls under neither of those categories,” human said, explaining that it is not defamatory because “no individual has been identified” and “there is no real damage that results from the statement, no way (the police) could be harmed by it.”

Each state has a list of banned words or phrases, or letter/number combinations. In some cases the ban is meant to prevent confusion between civilian and government vehicles – for instance, in New York “FDNY” is not allowed on public plates. In others it is intended to prevent offensive or explicit messages.

But discrepancies over regulation is not uncommon. Earlier this year, for example, a Georgia man opened suit against the state’s department of driver’s services commissioner, claiming his rights had been violated when the department rejected his application for tags reading “4GAYLIB,” “GAYPWR” and “GAYGUY.”

Human, who is representing himself in the case, claimed he half expected from the beginning to have to fight for the plates. That was perhaps partly the point. The other part, he said, is the message itself.

“I have no illusion that seeing a license plate is going to convince people that cops lie,” he said. “But if it even gets people thinking about the fact that police officers don’t always tell the truth, then it will have served its political purpose.”

Human said Friday that his beef with the police originated five years ago, when he was convicted of resisting arrest while being stopped for attempted jaywalking. He claims the conviction hinged on perjurious testimony by the two officers who stopped him, that there was no evidence he resisted arrest.

He started to publicly protest police conduct, manning a booth in downtown Dover and founding a local campaign called the Seacoast Liberty Police Anti-corruption Campaign, or SeaL PAC. But results were slow to manifest. In October 2008, he was arrested while protesting on a street corner.

In September of last year, human (with a lower-case “h”) legally changed his name from David Montenegro. The reason?

“There seems to be a perception among certain government officials that I advocate for civil rights to create a name for myself, or to grandstand or showboat,” he said. “In fact, what I am . . . is a human being looking out for the rights of other human beings. Changing my name to human is a way to show what I really stand for.”

The Supreme Court will accept amicus briefs from interested parties through June 24.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles as the Department of Motor Vehicles. It also misidentified the Strafford County Superior Court as the Strafford Superior Court.

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