On the twenty-fifth anniversary of a landmark Rhode Island court decision on women’s rights, which held that married women have the legal right to use their birth name on their driver’s license, the ACLU of Rhode Island charged today that the Division of Motor Vehicles continues to provide misinformation to individuals about this basic right.

In a controversial and highly-publicized 1977 court decision, a R.I. Superior Court judge upheld a DMV policy that required married women wishing to register a motor vehicle or obtain a driver’s license to use their husband’s surnames unless they presented a formal legal document evidencing a name change. The suit was brought by the ACLU on behalf of a woman who, after her divorce, sought to resume the use of her birth name on her driver’s license, but was rebuffed. The ACLU appealed that court decision and, on July 27, 1979, the R.I. Supreme Court unanimously overturned that policy, holding that individuals have a common-law right to use or adopt any name as long as it is not for fraudulent purposes.

Over the years, the ACLU continued to receive complaints from women that the court decision was not being followed by the DMV, resulting in lengthy correspondence to Division officials about the complaints. The problem finally seemed to disappear in the 21st Century, but last November, a resident complained to the ACLU about information appearing on the DMV’s web site.

In the FAQ section of the web site, one of the questions answered is, “What do I need to do if I have changed my name?” The web site falsely advises individuals they must first have their name changed with the Social Security Administration and present their new Social Security card to the Registry in order to obtain a new license. RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown immediately wrote DMV Administrator Charles Dolan about the false advice, but eight months later, has still not received a response. The inaccurate information continues to appear on the Registry’s web site.

The ACLU’s letter acknowledged that “the Registry may require (and, we believe, used to require) an affidavit from the person acknowledging that the name change is non-fraudulent, for example, and some minimal evidence indicating that the person is in fact using the new name for other purposes. However, a requirement that she provide a Social Security card with the new name is no different from the Registry’s illegal requirement” struck down by the court in 1979.

The ACLU’s Brown said today: “We have to wonder how many women are unnecessarily following the DMV’s inaccurate advice in order to have their name changed on their license. Surely this 25th anniversary is an opportune time for the DMV to finally get it right and to revise its web site to reflect the law.”