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Vanity Plate Case Headed to New Hampshire Supreme Court

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New Hampshire quarter

New Hampshire quarter

Apparently in New Hampshire, you can Live Free or Die — except when it comes to your car’s license plate.

When Dover resident David Montenegro’s request for the personalized license plate “COPSLIE” was summarily denied by the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles, he appealed to the division’s director and the state commissioner of safety. Both sided with the DMV, and the director concluded that “a reasonable person would find COPSLIE offensive to good taste.”

At that point, Montenegro (who has since legally changed his name to “human”) decided to test the approval system by applying for both a pro-government license plate, “GR8GOVT,” and an anti-government plate, “GOVTSUX.”

GR8GOVT was approved, which to human proved that the DMV had not acted in a “viewpoint neutral” way when it OK’ed a plate praising the government but denied the other expressing criticism of government officials (police officers). Human maintains that this is a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but New Hampshire courts have ruled in the DMV’s favor thus far.

Human is appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court, and the court is asking for amicus briefs from the public on whether the DMV violated human’s right to free speech or whether its justification is legally sound. The deadline for submitting briefs is June 24.

Personalized license plates are also known as vanity plates, and although all states permit them, the proposed plate must get past the DMV first. Standards vary greatly across the country.

The battle over vanity plates centers on the question of whether the unique set of letters and/or numbers on a given plate is individual expression or government speech. This question has not yet been definitively decided by our nation’s highest court.

Generally, government officials claim that because they issue the plates, the content is government speech. Therefore, the argument goes, the government can regulate what’s on the plates, as it has the authority to choose its own messages. If the plates are classified as private speech, however, the government does not have the power to use the First Amendment to restrict an individual’s right to print their viewpoint on the plate.

The government can restrict even private speech if it is defamatory or obscene; incites violence, crime, or sedition; causes panic; or is made up of “fighting words,” defined as “those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

What do you think of the COPSLIE plate? Is the New Hampshire DMV restricting human’s First Amendment rights or are they correct in denying his request?

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May 8th, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Posted in First Amendment

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