Examples of Our Lose of "Freedom of Speech"


Saturday, March 16, 2002

SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — The fight over "vanity plates" is heating up around the country, with DMV officials and drivers duking it out over license wording like "IRISH1" and "ATHEIST."

In Vermont, a few days before St. Patrick’s Day, a woman dressed from head to toe in green argued before the state Supreme Court that she had the right to have "IRISH1" emblazoned on her license plate. The Department of Motor Vehicles said the plate violated its rule against references to ethnic groups.

And DMV employees in Florida have suddenly decided to revoke the "ATHEIST" plate they issued to the vice president of Atheists of Florida 16 years ago, on the grounds that the label is "obscene or objectionable."

It's a battle seen in several states grappling with where to draw the line between free expression and words that might offend or serve as an invitation to trouble.

The Vermont "IRISH1" driver, Carol Ann Martin, made her case before the Supreme Court in a pale green dress and bright green headband decorated with shamrocks and a leprechaun.

"The people of this state want to have words or phrases on their license plates that are positive and meaningful to them," Martin said after the hearing. "What's wrong with ‘Irish?’"

The Florida man arguing for an "ATHEIST" plate, Steven Miles, has been cruising around Gainesville for more than a decade-and-a-half and said the license plate is a valid form of self-expression.

But last month, the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles wrote him a letter telling him it now considers the license tag "obscene or objectionable."

That puts the personalized plate on the department's blacklist, right up there with epithets, expletives and words describing certain body parts.

"The plate must be canceled," the letter stated. Miles was ordered to send the plate back in the letter.

Miles, 55, said giving up his tag is out of the question.

"It's kind of disconcerting to know that the United States is based on freedom of expression, yet in actuality, it's quite restrictive," Miles, an electrical engineer at the University of Florida, told the St. Petersburg Times in an article published Thursday.

The review was prompted by a complaint signed by 10 people, said DMV spokesman Robert Sanchez. A supervisor in the Bureau of Titles and Registrations in Tallahassee sided with the protesters and decided to yank the plate.

Department officials routinely refuse to issue blatantly offensive personalized tags. But pulling them off the street is rare.

In Ohio, the fight has been over a proposed plate saying "H8 MICH," a criticism either of nearby Michigan or its sports teams. The motor vehicle agency automatically rejects all requests for "hate" — "H8" — plates, as well as those that include profanity, drug references and ethnic slurs.

"WINE" was the license plate at issue before the Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday. Michael Higgins, a 65-year-old retired wine merchant, went to court after his applications for plates saying "WINE," "IN VINO" and "VINO" were rejected. Oregon's motor vehicle agency bans references to alcohol, tobacco or drugs, along with vulgar or sex-related words.

Higgins' question is this: "Why shouldn't people be able to put anything on a vanity plate that they can put on a bumper sticker?"

Bonnie Rutledge, Vermont's motor vehicles commissioner, said license plates are state property, and their main purpose is to identify vehicles.

"That is not really the purpose of a license plate — to put out your own personal message," she said.

Under Vermont law, the commissioner can reject an application for a vanity plate that "might be offensive or confusing to the general public."

For example, Paula Perry of East Montpelier recently lost her bid to have "SHTHPNS" on her license plates. It's not what you might think: Perry said it stood for "shout happiness."

At issue are rules the commissioner issued interpreting the law. Barred are "combinations of letters or numbers that refer in any language to a race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation."

Rutledge said the rules are stricter than they used to be — "IRISH" is on a set of Vermont plates right now, for example.

At the Vermont Supreme Court hearing, Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy asked if a strict reading of the word "color" on the forbidden list might bar someone from having a plate that said "BLUE."

John Bloomer, Martin's lawyer, expanded on that point in a later interview. "Under the current rule you can have ‘GO SOX' but not ‘GO RED SOX' and not ‘GO YANKS," he said.

The hearing had its lighter moments, including when Justice James Morse asked about more indirect ethnic references and referred to the word "SHAMROCK" on a license plate.

"I think this close to March 17, it probably would be fine," Griffin said to a laugh from the audience.

He needn't worry: "SHAMROCK" is eight letters and vanity plates are limited to seven.

Atheists of Florida's Miles thinks his First Amendment rights are being violated. He said he intends to fight back and has been in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"For the department to claim or state that the word 'atheist' is offense or objectionable is something to be upset about," he said.

Sanchez said a letter in support of Miles is prompting the DMV to take a second look. But if Miles is unsatisfied with their final decision, he has an alternative, Sanchez said.

"There is a venue for people's free speech on automobiles and that's a few inches below the license plate," he said. "That's a bumper sticker."

The state once tried to keep offensive material off bumpers, too. But that effort was thrown out by the courts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.