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California it cannot enforce a ban on vanity plates that it considers “offensive to good taste and decency” because it violates free speech, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Federal District Judge Jon Tigar ruled in a case filed in March against Department of Motor Vehicles Director Steve Gordon on behalf of five Californians who were denied permission to put their messages on personalized license plates.

Among them was a gay man from Oakland who owns Queer Folks Records and wanted to use the word “QUEER” but was rejected because the DMV said that could be considered an insult; a fan of the rock band Slayer who was notified that “SLAAYRR” would be considered “threatening, aggressive or hostile” and an army veteran who wanted to write down his nickname and love for wolves with “OGWOOLF” but was rejected because the DMV said OG could be construed as a reference to the “original gangster.”

A van with a personalized license plate is seen in Beverly Hills, California.  A federal judge said Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, that California cannot ban vanity plates that it deems offensive to good taste and decency, because that violates free speech.  (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes, file)
A van with a personalized license plate is seen in Beverly Hills, California. A federal judge said Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, that California cannot ban vanity plates that it deems offensive to good taste and decency, because that violates free speech. (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes, file) (AP)

Others were rejected because their license plates may look or sound like an expletive or could be interpreted as sexual, depending on the judge’s ruling.

Citing freedom of speech cases from the US Supreme Court, the judge struck down a DMV rule that said vanity license plate configurations cannot have “offensive connotations to good taste and decency.”

The judge said the personalized messages were types of personal expression, not “government speech” and therefore the regulations governing them “must be both neutral and reasonable.”

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He pointed to a 2017 US Supreme Court case that allowed an Asian-American rock band to call itself The Slants by saying that public speaking cannot be banned because it may offend some people.

However, Tigar said the DMV could probably be allowed to deny license plates that are, for example, obscene, profane, or contain hate speech because they fall outside the protections of the First Amendment.

“This is a great day for our clients and the 250,000 Californians who seek to express their messages on personalized plaques each year,” attorney Wen Fa of the Pacific Legal Foundation, who filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Vague prohibitions on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”

The DMV was reviewing the ruling and declined to comment further, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.


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