A police officer in Indiana lost his battle to keep his “0INK” license plate after the state’s highest court threw out his appeal.
The Indiana Supreme Court said the state’s personalized license plates are official “government speech,” and therefore it doesn’t violate a drivers’ First Amendment rights when the state MVD rejects a personalized request.
The case was brought by Greenfield Police Department Cpl. Rodney Vawter. He has been using the “0INK” plate for three years without a problem. But in 2013, another plate request – “O1NK” was rejected, causing the department’s computers to flag Cpl. Vawter’s plate too. It was subsequently revoked.
The American Civil Liberties Union jumped in, representing Vawter. They said most people would recognize that the plates were not government speech and that plates like “BIGGSXY.” FXYLDY” and “BLKJEW” have been issued by the state with no problem.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” Kenneth Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, said in an interview. “We thought that unique license plates that individuals construct for themselves were private speech, not government speech, especially if it were obvious that the speech was not that of the state.”
Indiana Attorney General Gregory Zoeller, whose office represented the motor vehicle bureau, said in a statement the court struck a “careful balance” that lets the state reject offensive plates while affording drivers many other means to express themselves on their vehicles.
But it’s haphazard. They rejected “JEWJEW” and “HATER,” but not “HATERS.” “PAKI” was denied, but “GRINGO” was approved; “SXY” was denied, but “BIGSXY” was approved, “FXYGMA” was approved, but “SEXYGRMA” was denied; “BIBLEH8R” was denied, but “BIBLES” was approved; “HATEME” was denied, but “HATE” was approved; “CNCRSUX” was denied, but “WNTRSUX” was approved.
The BMV suspended its personal license plate program in July 2013, shortly after Vawter’s lawsuit was filed. The Indiana Supreme Court put the program on hold pending its decision on the case.The BMV is evaluating the ruling and will soon have more information on how the program will move forward, a spokesman for the agency said.
The ACLU of Indiana has the option to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling. The nonprofit has 90 days to decide on its next step.