Court Rules That Ban on “Offensive” License Plates Likely Violates First Amendment

Posted: Oct, 04, 2020

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction in support of an ACLU of Rhode Island lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law that gives the DMV Administrator carte blanche authority to deny vanity license plates based on whether he thinks they “might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”

In a ruling issued late Friday, Judge Mary McElroy agreed with arguments made by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman that she was likely to conclude, after further hearings, that the statute is unduly vague and violates the First Amendment by giving the DMV unbridled discretion to ban speech based on the viewpoint of the message.

The suit was filed in March on behalf of Sean Carroll, an environmentally conscious Tesla owner who had been ordered by the DMV, in response to an anonymous complaint, to turn in his license plate “FKGAS” or else have his car registration cancelled. In allowing Carroll to use the plate until the litigation has ended, Judge McElroy concluded that “the revocation of the license plate, which would prohibit Mr. Carroll from expressing his views on fossil fuel propulsion of motor vehicles, would stifle him in an irreparable way.”

The DMV has approved over 41,000 vanity license plates, denied dozens of others, and maintains a list of more than 1,000 prohibited license plate combinations. The suit pointed out the completely arbitrary nature of the list and the DMV’s decisions, and Judge McElroy’s ruling did as well, as she noted:

“[T]he DMV has prohibited such combinations as AIDS, CHRIST, GAY, JESUS, LESBIAN, REDNECK and YANKEE. But it has issued plates that read CHRIST, JEWISH, REDNEC, and REDNEK. It has prohibited words that are typically denigrating, such as CHUBBY and SLOB, but allowed FATT and OLDFRT.”

The lawsuit noted that Carroll obtained the “FKGAS” license plate last year “because he wished to convey, through the license plate, a personal philosophical and political message concerning his views about gasoline-powered automobiles and the environment.” The complaint states that when Carroll purchased the electrically powered car, he explained to his daughter that they could charge the car with energy from their home-installed solar panels, and she said it was like “fake gas.” Carroll acknowledged that the plate could also be perceived as conveying the message “fuck gas,” and that he supported that meaning as well.

Plaintiff Carroll said today: “I am thrilled with Judge McElroy’s decision on my First Amendment right allowing me to express my views through my vanity plate.  The only thing better is to be able to continue to see all the smiles, laughter, thumbs up and fist bumps in the rear-view mirror as people continue to read and get the humor in my message.”

ACLU cooperating attorney Lyons added: “We are gratified that Judge McElroy found that Mr. Carroll has a First Amendment right to express his environmental views on his vanity license plate and that the DMV’s attempt to cancel his plate likely violates that right.”

More information about the case can be found here.