Vanity license plates were always intriguing to me, mainly because most of them make absolutely no sense to me. Though I have never opted for the custom letter combo to adorn the rear of my automobile, I can see why the added personal touch might mean so much to a person. In New Hampshire vanity plates are fairly popular among drivers, though despite what you may think, the custom phrases and combinations are not free from scrutiny.
In 2010 the Department of Motor Vehicles refused to grant the request of a Dover man to have his plate read “COPSLIE” because they found it to be insulting. The statute cited by the DMV says that a vanity plate may not be "ethnically, racially (insulting) or which a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste." A poorly written rule according to John Greabe of the University of New Hampshire Law School. It's grammatically unclear. When you start to single out certain types of messages, such as ethnic messages or racial messages, but you don't include other types -- what about religious-based references, what about gender-based or sexual orientation-based -- are those OK?" He said.
Free Speech - Double Standard?
Months later the same man that requested the “COPSLIE” option for his vanity plate, requested a second option which essentially reads “Great Government. Not surprisingly the case is on its way to the Supreme Court. Greabe explains “If you praise the government, that's OK. You can get a plate that does that. If you criticize the government or agents of the government, that's not OK. That's how the petitioner is trying to frame his argument here."
This appears to be treading on the First Amendment which prevents government restriction of speech, in most instances. This could potentially be problematic for the New Hampshire government here.
Surprisingly NH is not the first state where this very issue has arisen. Oregon, Georgia, Tennessee, and Vermon have also come across similar problems with vanity plates. In an effort to avoid any of the above issues, South Dakota has eliminated the option for vanity plates altogether.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court is doing something unconventional in this case by soliciting opinions of outsiders not connected to the case. The American Civil Liberties Union will be presenting its position stating that the DMV was mistaken in its denial of the “COPSLIE” vanity plate.
"The government can't censor speech," said Barbara Keshen, attorney for the ACLU. "It can't say, 'I like (one person's) message, but I don't like (another person's) message, so I will grant (one person's) plates but not (another's)."
This story gives me a whole new perspective on this idea of vanity plates. I used to think of them solely as a fun way to pass the time on road trips, but now I suppose there are larger implications in play with respect to the messages we choose to portray on something as simple as a vehicle license plate.
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