Sunday, October 13, 2013

Live Free or Shut Up: New Hampshire License Plates Captivate Us Again

The most dramatic one of all has to be New Hampshire's, which says Live Free or DIE!
A little harsh, don't you think?

Well, I'm certainly not going to move there.I get just a little  nervous in any state where they mention death right on the license plate.
--George Carlin

 A man who has changed his name to Human (from Montenegro) has sued the state of New Hampshire because he wanted a vanity plate that read:COPSLIE. Or it may have been COPS LIE, but you get the idea.  His request was denied and he submitted a variety of alternatives but the only one accepted by the  New Hampshire DMV was "GR8GOVT."

Mr. Human argued the state had selected the only positive statement about government from a list of submitted plates with negative things to say about government, and thus had denied him his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

The judge and the New Hampshire state DMV fell right into the trap by making the astonishingly stupid argument his criticism, denigration, accusation plates were in poor taste.

Later, in his opinion, the judge noted you cannot put "DRUNK" on your plates, or, he  might have added, "KDDEPORN" or "SHIT" but he did note you can speak freely by applying a bumper sticker to your car. You just cannot ask the government to print up your speech for you without allowing the government to censor your remarks.

New Hampshire's license plates have made it to the United States Supreme Court before, in Wooley v Maynard, a case in which a Jevohah's Witness taped over the Live Free or Die and was arrested.  The Supreme Court ruled that freedom to speech included the right to not speak and found the citizen had acted within his rights. Justice Burger argued the state had compelled the citizen to attach to his private property (his automobile) a mobile billboard stating the state's message. Justice Rehnquist argued against this, saying the citizen was free to attach a bumper sticker below the license plate disagreeing with the license plate message. The majority voted with Justice Burger. (How do you think Roberts/Scalia/ Alito/Thomas will vote in this case of the citizen against the powers that be?)

Now, the ACLU has taken up Mr. Human's cause.

Mad Dog has not been able to find how much the state of New Hampshire makes from the sale of personalized license plates, but clearly, the state has entered a marketplace, and this takes the license plate out of an inarguably government product restricted to identifying and certifying vehicles and into a realm of the marketplace, which might be reasonably assumed to include the world of free expression.

In Tennessee, you can have a license plate called a "specialty" plate with the logo of an anti abortion organization and the words "Choose Life," but you cannot have an alternative plate which was rejected, which said, "Freedom of Choice."   Like New Hampshire, the government claims to not support any particular point of view, but by eliminating statements or logos for opposing points of view, it clearly has taken a position, and asserted a particular position as a government endorsed position.
The judge in New Hampshire who supported the DMV's rejection of COPS LIE, said making the DMV print up this plate would be an insult to police, an irrelevant consideration, but he apparently also got to the more germane point,when he finally noted that by making the government print his opinion, Mr. Human had virtually compelled the government to put its seal of approval on his opinion.
That is a more interesting point.
But then, what about all those plates which say LUVWINE or SKINAKD or SURFTPLS?
If the government makes enough money, it is willing to wink at some plates but it draws the line at others. Which means it places the government in the position of constantly censoring content deciding what is "good taste" and what is "offensive."
One thing you have to like about New Hampshire is its willingness to enter the fray. No state which puts Live Free or Die on its plates can be accused of being boring.
But once you decide to embrace controversy, you cannot hide behind "good taste."


  1. Mad Dog,
    Seems the DMV handed Human his case when they gave the go ahead to GR8GOVT and nixed COPSLIE. Given what's going on in Washington, one could probably find quite a few folks who would find GR8GOVT objectionable.It will be interesting to see what the state Supreme Court decides and if the case goes on from there....

  2. Maud,

    Presumably, Human set that trap quite deliberately. Gives them 3 critical phrases and one laudatory and they chose the one which says government is great. Presumably, the clerks at the DMV did not see this coming.

    Mad Dog