Vanity License Plates

11/22/2013

A vanity license plate that says "NOT SEE" (with the separate image of a swastika above it) has caused a stir in California and resulted in the plate being recalled by the California Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV").  The plate, when pronounced, sounds like the word "Nazi."  Appartenly, the plate was deemed too offensive for someone to have on their car.

But who gets to decide when vanity plates are too offensive?  In California, it looks like it comes down to common sense and good taste.  The California Vehicle Code provides that the department has the right to refuse any combination of letters and/or numbers that "may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency, or which may be misleading or in conflict with any license plate series now issued."

Courts in other states have reasoned that subjective rules that rely on "good taste" may be unconstitutinally vague or violate free speech.  

When I first started practicing law, I was involved with a license plate dispute where the Missouri DMV tried to take back a plate that said "Aryan 1."  The person who had the plate contested the recall on free speech grounds as well as Missouri's then statute which said a plate would not be issued if contained an obscene or profane word or phrase.  The person who had the plate argued that "Aryan 1" was not an obscene or profane word.  Ultimately, the driver was allowed to keep the plate.  To learn more about this Missouri case, click here http://www.leagle.com/decision/1990923799SW2d124_1910