Earlier this year, a police officer and the ACLU performed a “strange bedfellows” act in hopes of overturning Indiana’s Bureau of Motor Vehicle’s rejection of the officer’s vanity license plate request. Rodney Vawter, a rare law enforcement officer capable of enjoying a laugh at his own expense (literally/figuratively), applied for a plate reading “01NK.” The BMV gave it to him. Three years later, it changed its mind, claiming the plate was now “offensive.”
Vawter took the BMV to court, claiming the agency’s denial of his plate infringed on his free speech. The BMV countered that it could pretty much do whatever it wanted, right up until a district court judge called its scattershot approval process (‘BIBLE4ME” – OK. “UNHOLY” – rejected, etc.) unconstitutional. The BMV, rather than adjust its process, simply stopped issuing plates until the issue could be fully resolved.
The state’s Supreme Court has delivered the final word on the BMV’s actions. It’s bad news for Vawter, who won’t be getting his “01NK” plate back. (h/t Free Thought Project)
The court found that, while speech is indeed at the center of this case, it’s the government’s speech that’s being regulated, not citizens‘. And the government can regulate its own speech however it wants.
Indiana’s personalized license plates are government speech. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles, therefore, does not violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments in denying an application for a PLP or revoking a previously issued PLP. Furthermore, Due Process Clause protections do not apply because vehicle owners do not have a property interest in their personalized license plates.
In arriving at this conclusion, the court made a number of supporting determinations, some more solid than others. Most curiously, it stated the limited “message” space on a license plate provides a forum too “limited” for protected speech.
Furthermore, the nature of Indiana’s PLPs is not compatible with expressive activity. Because PLPs are small and contain a maximum of eight characters, they cannot realistically promote meaningful discourse, communication, and debate.
(And yet, “Fuck the draft” is only 12 characters [with spaces removed] and was recognized as protected speech by the Supreme Court of the United States. Eight letters isn’t “discourse,” but twelve is?)
It also found that government-issued plates are still government speech, even if individuals obtain plates with their own “messages” on them. While most people recognize the fact that a state agency issues license plates, they associate the messages on vanity plates to be representative of the person driving the car, rather than the entity that printed the plate. The court shrugs this off by saying it’s not its fault if observers jump to the wrong “speech” conclusion.
PLPs do not cease to be government speech simply because some observers may fail to recognize that PLP alphanumeric combinations are government issued and approved speech in every instance. […] The alphanumeric combination, regardless of its content, is government speech specifically identifying a single vehicle.
So, the BMV’s highly-inconsistent approval process is once again “Constitutional,” but only because it’s the government regulating its “own” speech, even if there’s a private citizen’s personal request somewhere in the middle of all the regulation. No “01NK” plate for Officer Vawter and no plates for other members of the public whose requests somehow “offend” the sensibilities of the BMV office drone processing the paperwork.