California cannot impose a ban on vanity tags that it considers “offensive to good taste and decency” because it violates freedom of expression, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled in a case filed in March against motor vehicle department director Steve Gordon on behalf of five Californians who were denied permission to put their messages on to custom cards.
They included a gay man in Oakland who owned Queer Folks Records and wanted to use the word “QUEER” but was turned down because the DMV said it could be considered insulting; a fan of the rock band Rock Slayer who was warned that “SLAAYRR” would be considered “threatening, aggressive or hostile” and an Army veteran who wanted to note his nickname and the love of wolves with “OGWOOLF” but it was rejected because the DMV said OG can be interpreted as a reference to “original gangster”.
Others were refused because their plans could appear or appear as an oath or could be interpreted as sexual, depending on the judge’s decision.
Citing U.S. Supreme Court free speech cases, the judge ruled a DMV standard that said vanity plate configurations cannot carry “offensive connotations for good taste and decency.”
The judge said that personalized messages were types of personal expression, not “government speech”, and therefore the regulations governing them “should be from a neutral and reasonable point of view”.
He noted a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case that allows an Asian-American rock band to call out The Slants saying public speaking can’t be banned because it can offend some people.
However, Tigar said the DMV could be allowed to reject dishes that are, for example, obscene, profane or contain hate speech because they fall outside the scope of the First Amendment protections.
“This is a great day for our clients and the 250,000 Californians who seek to express their messages on personalized cards each year,” said Wen Fa, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, who presented the case, in a statement. “The vague interdictions of offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”
The DMV was reviewing the decision and declined further comment, the San Francisco Chronicle said.