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BURRISS: License plates and First Amendment rights

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We know newspapers and magazines have all kinds of First Amendment rights. Broadcasters have slightly fewer, and as for the Internet, well, that’s still up for debate. But what about license plates? Well, those may be the new free speech battleground.

License plates first made it into the First Amendment arena back in 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court said a New Hampshire couple could legally cover up the state motto, “Live Free or Die.”

OK, that was what is called a “compelled speech” case. But what about using your license plate to convey your own message?

When we think of personalized license plates, we usually think of someone’s initials, or maybe a cute way of spelling our job or our name. But what about politically charged messages? Well, if you think it’s hard to get a message into 140 characters, how in the world can you get into trouble with eight characters or less? It turns out, easier than you think.
A New Jersey woman has asked for a license plate with the number eight followed by “theist.” Get it: 8theist. The Motor Vehicle Commission promptly denied her request, saying the plate was objectionable.

When the commission approved a plate with the word “Baptist,” she promptly filed a lawsuit, claiming the state was discriminating against atheists.

At the other end of the religious spectrum, a few years ago a court ruled that South Carolina could not issue a plate that said “I believe.”

A bigger problem for New Jersey may not be the message itself, but that the state has, in fact, issued atheist-themed plates in the past. Last year the state issued a plate with the word “atheist” in which the number one was substituted for the letter “i.”

Even trying to decide what is, in fact, offensive, can be a problem: A few years ago New Jersey recalled a plate four years after it had been issued because one person in the state complained.

Although there are some limits in the case of racial comments or hateful speech, generally speaking, the First Amendment protects speech that is merely offensive. Even if the speech is eight characters or less.

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first amendment, larry burriss, license plate, rights
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