Vanity Plates Censored

September 03, 2014

For an extra fee, drivers in Michigan are allowed to come up with their own personalized letter/number configurations for their license plates.

Although only a few characters long, “vanity plates” are often used to convey a meaningful expression of the driver’s personal identity, values, or sense of humor. Unfortunately, state officials who issue license plates were given the discretion to censor the messages on these plates whenever they are deemed “offensive to good taste and decency.”

In one case, an Iraq War veteran who lives in the Upper Peninsula was told that he could not have a license plate that says “INF1DL” because some people might find it offensive. In another, a political activist from Ann Arbor was told that his request for a license plate that says “WAR SUX” was being denied because that, too, might offend someone.

The ACLU of Michigan filed suit in federal court in 2013 to challenge the vagueness and overbreadth of the “offensive to good taste and decency” law. Although no one likes to be offended, the ACLU believes that it is dangerous to allow the government to decide which speech is allowed and which should be censored.

In May 2014 Judge Gordon Quist denied the state’s motion to dismiss and ruled that the law was facially unconstitutional. The state then agreed to a consent judgment permanently striking down the law. The “INF1DL” and “WAR SUX” license plates were issued to our clients and can be spotted on Michigan roadways.

(Matwyuk v. Johnson; ACLU Attorneys Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg and Law Student Intern Michael El-Zein.)

To view the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket, click here.