One of the more ingenious ways state governments get you to part with your ill-gotten gains (if you are rich, that is) is to sell you a vanity license plate. Since most of us think we are perfection on two legs, something special to be celebrated and foisted on others, a license plate that caters to our uniqueness is a real easy sell. Anything that separates us from the rabble, getting one of these is a small price to pay. I don’t know who first thought of this idea, but he should be enshrined on the Mount Rushmore of civic revenue grabbers, along with the inventor of the toll roads, speed traps, and red light cameras.

Since Californians are known for their hubris and egos, I suspect it was birthed right here.

The first iteration was a personalized license plate.  For a nominal fee you can show the rest of the motorists how cool, special, or eclectic you are. Proud of your avocation, hobby, girlfriend or city where you live, prove it, get a personalized license plate.

The state and those that followed saw the golden goose for what is was, so they added symbols to the mix. Want a heart, a hand, an exclamation mark, or another cute emoji? Place your order.

Soon all possible phrases or words were taken. Most vanity owners could not stop with just one car. You can’t have a vanity plate on one car without getting the wife one, and the kids. No doubt there is a vehicle code section somewhere declaring the forfeiture of all property if plates are mixed and not consistent.

What to do? Another brainstorm, how about a “Special Interest” license plate frame? For another nominal fee (the two favorite words of all bureaucrats) you can get both. Special interest plates can be about anything and trust me, when all is said and done, there will be hundreds of different types. You can get one with a whale on it, Yosemite, Clear Lake, the Redwoods, multiple sports, flowers or animals. If you are a beekeeper, yep, we got one of those too.

Now, the fly in the ointment, what happens when you want to purchase a personalized plate but those Philistines at the capital won’t print what you want? Sue them, of course;

State governments shouldn’t be rejecting perfectly inoffensive license plates. And thanks to one atheist’s lawsuit, we’re a step closer to making sure that doesn’t happen in Kentucky.

This case began in 2016, when the head of Kentucky’s Division of Motor Vehicles rejected Ben Hart‘s request to get a license plate reading “IM GOD,” even though he had it (without incident) in Ohio, where he had lived for the previous twelve years. That’s when he filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU of Kentucky and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Most be nice to be rich enough to hire a lawyer and sue the state over a license plate.

Ever since inception there existed a battle of wills between those clever consumers and the keepers of all things decent and moral as what naughty, provocative, provoking phrase could get approved. And some get the gold metal.

I suspect the reason this guy got his request shot down was due to another misguided effort to placate Muslims. “I’m God” would not stir your average Christian to either outrage or violence. Much like ,”I’m a douche-bag”, if I saw it on a plate I would chuckle, wanting to know why the driver is so hard on himself. References to God, Jesus, Christ or any religious inference, zero tick on my outrage meter. But any mention of Allah or Muhammad and sanity goes right out the window.

I get that decency standards must apply here. Can’t have anything obscene or racial but “offensive” is such a subjective term. I would hope that state censors would err on the side of free expression, they don’t.

This guy’s lawyer is laying his client’s case on the pedestal of  the 1st Amendment, free expression. I would be interested to get your guy’s take on this, see, I don’t think it applies here at all. You can say, “I’m God”, wear it on your clothes, even make a bumper sticker proclaiming such, but there is no 1st Amendment right to purchase a state approved vanity license plate. You have a right to say many disgusting disagreeable offensive things, the state is not obligated to aid you in your free expression of your 1st Amendment right.

15 comments

  1. This is a fairly easy one, Rich and I’m almost gobsmacked as to why you couched the rejection of the verbiage on the plate as a Muslim conspiracy. The complainant doesn’t cite Islam once in his reasoning for the phrase on his vanity plate, and the state doesn’t say the plate was rejected on the grounds that it might offend Muslims.

    Maybe triggering is your thing, but it is more awkward than watching obama trying to noodle arm an opening pitch over home plate in the most cringeworthy attempt possible.

    I can’t read minds here but the state gave two reasons for rejecting the plate. One was the blanket “I’m offended” which was suicidal because it’s the establishment of a religion. The supremes have basicalky taken a duplicitous approach to invocations of “god” in government documents and institutions, opining that “god” is meant in the non-religious, non-denominational 12 step program meaning of the word. So, it’s allowed to exist on legal tender and on the license plate of inbred hicks in Kentucky that at less than face value do not interpret it any other way than “baby Jesus, stars and bars” god, guns and screamin eagles jingoism.

    The government has allowed it as long as they don’t push it too far and DEFINE what god is. This sounds like it’s a case because the government official, through obvious-to-anyone-with-a-pulse implications saw that someone was trying to offend his baby Jesus in a nascar manger sensibilities, got offended by the plate and rejected it honestly, saying he/she was offended.

    The guy with the plate was waiting for this moment his entire life and pushed back, hoping to find an idiot stupid enough to say out loud, or through obvious implication (which this is) he was offended as a Christian, and they couldn’t back pedal enough to avoid getting sued. The second belqck pedaling logic of “in poor taste” wasn’t a far enough cowardly back pedal from the original rejection to avoid the lawsuit.

    Didn’t pass the bullshit test.

    Ultimately the legal folly in kentucky’s reasons to reject such a plate would almost invariably require the offended party to define the offense as “offensive to a particular god” and therefore it’s damaging.

    This has ZERO to do with Muslims.

  2. This is a fairly easy one, Rich and I’m almost gobsmacked as to why you couched the rejection of the verbiage on the plate as a Muslim conspiracy. The complainant doesn’t cite Islam once in his reasoning for the phrase on his vanity plate, and the state doesn’t say the plate was rejected on the grounds that it might offend Muslims.

    Except I didn’t say any of that. There was no mention of a conspiracy anywhere. And you should look up the word “suspect” since that was the word I specifically used. One can only wonder at the rational for the rejection since we don’t have the rejector’s written statement on the matter. Their reasoning went from”obscene or vulgar” to “not in good taste”. An explanation for that conclusion would be nice, we don’t have it, so we are free to “suspect” what might be behind the rejection.

    I could be wrong on the Muslim angle but my conclusion was based on the mountains of examples to draw from on how governments/companies bend over backwards to apply grease to the squeaky wheel. We see daily in Europe a concerted effort to conceal identities with Muslim crime. We see rape epidemics downplayed and hidden. We see Charlie Hebdo workers gunned down and murdered because they insulted Muhammad with a cartoon. We see insane blasphemy and sacrilege laws enforced where people are killed and imprisoned, gays thrown off rooftops or hanged, child marriages and honor killings. So yes, it is possible that the prevailing wisdom in these matters is this ,”Given the delicate sensibilities of some Muslims, we can not authorize a plate referencing any deity, period”.

    Maybe triggering is your thing, but it is more awkward than watching obama trying to noodle arm an opening pitch over home plate in the most cringeworthy attempt possible.

    Yes, that is pretty cringe-worthy, but if you think this is triggering, I suggest you find a safe space with a cuddly toy and maybe take up needle point. Blogs are meant for kicking around ideas.

    One was the blanket “I’m offended” which was suicidal because it’s the establishment of a religion.

    Except that you have zero evidence to prove any of that. You may not like their reasons for the denial but I’m sure there was more to it than ,”I’m offended, next”.

    he was offended as a Christian

    Again, you have no evidence for that assertion. We don’t know how the decision process works, who made it, or what his religious affiliation, if any, he holds.

    Didn’t pass the bullshit test.

    It is unsatisfying, I must agree, mostly because we want to know why it was deemed ,”not in good taste”.

    Ultimately the legal folly in kentucky’s reasons to reject such a plate would almost invariably require the offended party to define the offense as “offensive to a particular god” and therefore it’s damaging.

    You are assuming (without evidence) there was an “offended party”. And there is no requirement to differentiate gods. It would be interesting to know if there are specific guidelines, catch phrases and subjects which would require blanket rejections, or is it all subjective?

    But you did not answer my question, is this a 1st Amendment issue?

  3. It is a 1st amendment issue, as the government can’t tell people what religion if any to follow, and they can’t tell someone he’s not God, or whatever flying spaghetti monster they happen to imagine themselves to be.

    Besides, I’m God, so there.

  4. Sorry buddy I just can’t buy that some hicktown in Kentucky is going to take the legal angle that they are worried about offending Muslims, and even if they did that sounds like a pretty specious argument to make in the interest of “impartiality.”

    So, the ball is in your court. I gave you my opinion of how this went down, and why a judge had to begrudgingly move the case forward to schedule it on the docket. You explain to me how, even in the slimmest of slim chances the commonwealth of ‘Tucky takes the piss weak stance of “we shole es wurriauhd about yonder Muslims hea” and THAT stance itself isn’t considered a tipping of the scales of this guy (also) making an eye rolling argument the he truly believes he is god and it’s discriminatory to offend his belief system.

    The article says Kentucky already allows “in god we trust” as a border option on the plate, so the “this is why we can’t have nice things” argument is off the table. This guy got his wish, was singled out, and got to pick a fight with Kentucky. A fight the ACLU glommed right on, so I’d love to hear your insight as to why Kentucky gets to have its cake and eat it too.

  5. Ok, let me answer the 1st amendment issue:

    I didn’t realize I was going to be cornered into something I don’t believe the plaintiff nor the defendant are arguing. No, I do not believe this is a first amendment issue. I’m sure Kentucky has legal guidlines of what is considered offensive, and that’s where this battle royale will go down. It’s probably universally agreed that you can’t just have anything stamped onto the plate, otherwise I’m getting a P.O. box in Kentucky tomorrow just so my plate can read “Donald Trump is an obese orange cuck” .

    The central argument in this suit is why the innocuous statement of “I’m god” invokes a rejection based on the argument that it is “offensive”. Kentucky needs a good god damn answer for that.

  6. Sorry buddy I just can’t buy that some hicktown in Kentucky is going to take the legal angle that they are worried about offending Muslims, and even if they did that sounds like a pretty specious argument to make in the interest of “impartiality.”

    “Hicktowns” don’t issue license plates. The decision was made at the capitol. And suspecting is not arguing. You may be right that no particular religion is behind the rejection, but you can only “suspect” as much since we do not have a policy document.

    So, the ball is in your court.

    I’m not sure what you are asking.

    , and why a judge had to begrudgingly move the case forward to schedule it on the docket

    What evidence do you have that the judge ruled “begrudgingly”? Or do you suspect this?

    so I’d love to hear your insight as to why Kentucky gets to have its cake and eat it too.

    It just dawned on me, you didn’t really read the post, did you? I’m betting that you somehow think that I support their decision to reject the plate. Although why you would reach that conclusion, since my position was spelled out unambiguously in the post, I have no idea. Be honest, is it that you think I would be against any deity referenced plate?

  7. I didn’t realize I was going to be cornered into something I don’t believe the plaintiff nor the defendant are arguing.

    Did you even bother to read the link?

    That’s the argument Hart’s attorneys made in the lawsuit:

    “Under the First Amendment, government officials do not have the authority to censor messages simply because they dislike them,” says ACLU-KY Legal Director William Sharp. “And in this instance, personalized license plates are a form of individual speech equally deserving of First Amendment protection.”

    “Hart has a right to select a personalized plate message that reflects his philosophical views, just as any other driver may select an individual message for their personalized plate,” says FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “Just as others may select religious messages, Ben Hart, an atheist, has a right to comment on religion.”

    They are arguing on a 1st Amendment principle, thus the question that I asked.

    No, I do not believe this is a first amendment issue. I’m sure Kentucky has legal guidlines of what is considered offensive, and that’s where this battle royale will go down. It’s probably universally agreed that you can’t just have anything stamped onto the plate,

    OK, fair enough.

    otherwise I’m getting a P.O. box in Kentucky tomorrow just so my plate can read “Donald Trump is an obese orange cuck” .

    Rejected, too many letters. You could do DTIAOOC, good luck explaining that to your friends.

    Kentucky needs a good god damn answer for that.

    And at trial they will have to answer that. Wouldn’t it be fun to be there watching?

  8. I did read it, they’re invoking the first amendment only in-so-much as it pertains to viewpoint discrimination. No matter which way Kentucky argues the license plate is treated under state law, be it public, limited public, or non public forum, they cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination.

    So. Kentucky has a forum that allows for the invocation of a god, yet tells hart his viewpoint is offensive. Absent profanity, on what grounds could it be considered offensive?

    See? It involves the first amendment but only for the purposes of discrimination. It is ultimately a discrimination suit.

  9. I did read it, they’re invoking the first amendment only in-so-much as it pertains to viewpoint discrimination.

    So why did you say this?

    Ok, let me answer the 1st amendment issue:

    I didn’t realize I was going to be cornered into something I don’t believe the plaintiff nor the defendant are arguing.

    When clearly Hart and his attorney were arguing on strictly 1st Amendment grounds.

    Your “viewpoint discrimination” angle is interesting, although no where in the link does it mention this. It does say;

    “Mr. Hart’s personalized plate request was denied based for reasons we believe violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,”

    WRT viewpoint discrimination, I don’t think they are arguing that at all. The ban covers plates communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages. It does not matter what the viewpoint is, no deity references period, that is what they are objecting to. So with that standard both “I believe in God”, and ,”I do not believe in God” would both be rejected, assuming you can drill down that message to 7 characters.

    The “In God We Trust” is a non sequitur since it is a motto and not an invocation to a deity.

  10. No, you are not right about that. In the statement of facts line item number 16 the plaintiffs argue that Kentucky, in fact, allows for religious statements on license plates. There is no “ban” on those statements on license plates.

    “Vulgar and offensive” is a discretionary legal authority that allows states to “reasonably” reject statements under THAT definition. This would colloquially include scatalogical statements and profanity.

    For example “shit happens” as a license plate could be rejected because of the word shit. It is arbitrary and capricious to reject the VIEWPOINT that bad things happen. The state cannot engage in THAT kind of censorship.

    License plates, legally, have been defined in various court decisions as some kind of forum, mostly left to the states to declare for themselves. That would be “public” forums, “limited public” forums, and “non public” forums. These designations have given states various freedoms in determining what can go on the plates. I don’t know what Kentucky plates are designated, however, it has been universally legally accepted that states may NOT engage in “viewpoint discrimination” no matter the forum they decide their plates fall under.

    So, yes, hart’s attorneys obviously say he has a first amendment right to his view. That is to strengthen the argument that his plate wasn’t meant to be a vehicle to “offend” others. It’s couched in his right to say he doesn’t believe in god. They almost have to say that to defeat the argument that he’s saying it with the express purpose of pissing the yokels off.

    He’s essentially saying “I’m not being vulgar, I’m expressing my views here, and you’re saying it’s rejected because I’m being vulgar. Why?” That’s why the suit goes to great lengths to say he had the same tag in another state for twelve years without incident.

    Finally:

    “The ACLU-KY/FFRF lawsuit argues that Hart’s proposed license plate is fully protected individual speech, which Kentucky DMV officials may not suppress using content-based, viewpoint-based, vague or overboard standards.”

    I can’t be bothered to count how many times “viewpoint” is littered throughout the complaint and article. It’s not an “interesting angle” it’s the legal precedent that disallows the state from lumping arbitrary and personal decisions in with what “vulgar” or “offensive” are. That is the CENTRAL argument here.

  11. Lastly, you asked me about the judge begrudgingly adding the case to the docket and why I believe it is begrudgingly so they did it. It is specifically for line number 16 in the factual allegations. The plaintiffs say that Kentucky allows for religious statements on the plates “upon information and belief” . They are saying “I don’t have a specific instance but I swear they do. At least I swear I believe they do.”

    The judge wrote in the order that the case moves forward because, as is federal procedure from everything I understand, the judge MUST consider the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. He even cites the decision that guides his decision in his order. The judge is implying “might be some bullshit here, but I’m not inclined to call that out in the pleading stage of the suit.”

    I happen to believe the plaintiffs because, well, Kentucky, but the judge didn’t seem to buy it.

  12. No, you are not right about that. In the statement of facts line item number 16 the plaintiffs argue that Kentucky, in fact, allows for religious statements on license plates. There is no “ban” on those statements on license plates.

    Do you have a link that shows this? I ask because in my link the attorney representing Hart specifically mentions Kentucky’s policy of barring personalized plates from communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages as the basis for the suit.

    “Vulgar and offensive” is a discretionary legal authority that allows states to “reasonably” reject statements under THAT definition.

    But they fell back on “Not in good taste” as the reason, good luck defining that.

    License plates, legally, have been defined in various court decisions as some kind of forum, mostly left to the states to declare for themselves. That would be “public” forums, “limited public” forums, and “non public” forums. These designations have given states various freedoms in determining what can go on the plates.

    Sounds like you are agreeing with their right to censor plates as they see fit.

    I don’t know what Kentucky plates are designated, however, it has been universally legally accepted that states may NOT engage in “viewpoint discrimination” no matter the forum they decide their plates fall under.

    The most logical answer would be that they get around this by making the word itself verboten, not just the sentiment behind it. You said it yourself, the word “shit” is banned, doesn’t matter the viewpoint pertaining to shit.

    They almost have to say that to defeat the argument that he’s saying it with the express purpose of pissing the yokels off.

    I don’t think that is necessary at all. What they will have to prove is that “I’m God” somehow is in bad taste or violates some standard that exists.

    He’s essentially saying “I’m not being vulgar, I’m expressing my views here, and you’re saying it’s rejected because I’m being vulgar. Why?” That’s why the suit goes to great lengths to say he had the same tag in another state for twelve years without incident.

    Vulgar is a different standard than not in good taste. And the argument that other states allow it is not compelling. Each state has it’s own laws, what is illegal or a violation in one is not necessarily a violation in all.

    I can’t be bothered to count how many times “viewpoint” is littered throughout the complaint and article.

    Well, the one paragraph you did bother to include mentioned it only once. And what would be helpful, consistent with blog etiquette, is for you to provide the link from which you extracted that paragraph. Me using the word “interesting” was not an attempt to discount or marginalize it, on the contrary, it was the first I had heard of it. If it is as you say and viewpoint discrimination is central to their argument, I would like to read about it.

  13. The complaint they submitted is in the article. In the instant suit, under the factual allegations, on line 16 they state that “upon information and belief” Kentucky allows religious viewpoints on license plates, and has approved them in the past.

  14. Kentucky allows religious viewpoints on license plates, and has approved them in the past.

    See, this is isn’t really clear to me. On line 31 it describes the hurdles plate requests must clear, such as they can’t intimidate or victimize by race, color, religion or sex. It also bars plates that “have as its primary purpose the promotion of any specific faith, religion, or antireligion” KRS § 186.164(9)(e);”

    Line 21 also sheds more light into the reasons for the denial;

    “the use of ‘IM GOD’ is not in good taste and would create the potential of distraction to other drivers and possibly confrontations.”

    It will all come down to whether the judge will declare the entire “good taste and decency” standard unconstitutional. TBH I don’t see him doing this. I think he should because of the ambiguity and subjectivity of the statute. Hopefully when it is resolved we can find the ruling and continue the discussion.

  15. I’d say it’s more of a 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause issue. The Government made vanity plates a thing for all citizens. If someone can get a plate saying “ILUVGOD” someone else should be able to get a plate saying “IH8GOD”, or in this case, “IM GOD”. Any of the above examples are likely to offend someone, because if there’s one thing both political spectrum’s have in common in this country, it’s being offended over stupid things.

    As far as the rest of it, it’s all just supposition. It could be because of fear of Muslim outrage, or it could be because of Christian offendedness. Or it could be both, or neither. There’s no evidence either way.

    I’d be more likely to get a plate that says, “ZOD”, and a holder that says, “KNEEL BEFORE…”

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