INDIANAPOLIS (AP/WANE) — A police officer has the right to buy a vanity license plate reading “0INK,” an Indiana judge has said in a ruling that extends far beyond one plate.
Marion County Judge James Osborn ruled Wednesday that the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles violated Greenfield police Officer Rodney Vawter’s freedom of speech rights when it revoked his plate after three years, saying its content was “offensive or misleading.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a class action lawsuit against the BMV based on Vawter’s case in May 2013. Now, the BMV must do much more than simply allow Vawter to have his “0INK” plate.
“They have to start handing out vanity plates again and they have to change their standards to fit the Constitution,” ACLU Indiana legal director Ken Falk said Thursday.
The BMV stopped offering vanity plates last July until the case was decided.
The judge said the BMV had no formal regulations in place for evaluating the content of vanity plates and ordered it to create formal standards that meet constitutional requirements within six months. It can use the old standards in the meantime, within limits such as barring profanity.
“That’s to avoid the chaos that would ensue if there were no standards,” Falk said.
The BMV also must inform of the ruling all the people whose plates were denied or revoked, or who would have applied for vanity plates if the agency had not suspended issuing them. The BMV must allow those people to reapply.
The BMV had cited a state statute that allowed it to refuse to issue a plate that officials deem to contain arranged letters and numbers that carry “a connotation offensive to good taste and decency” or that “would be misleading.”
The court found the agency’s use of its own standards was inconsistent and biased. For example, the agency revoked an “UNHOLY” vanity plate but allowed vanity plates such as “B HOLY” and “HOLYONE.” The BMV also rejected the vanity plate “HATER” but accepted “HATE” and “HATERS.”
And while revoking Vawter’s “0INK” plate, it allowed plates reading “OINKS” or “OINKER.”
Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, which represented the BMV, said it would review the ruling with the bureau before deciding whether to file an appeal.
A BMV spokesman didn’t immediately return a phone call from the Associated Press seeking comment Thursday.
The case is among several cases involving the content of vanity plates that have been filed across the country.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of a man with a “COPSLIE” plate. In a unanimous decision, the court agreed with the arguments of David Montenegro, who wanted the vanity plate to protest what he calls government corruption.
The ACLU of Indiana issued the following statement following the ruling:
Hoosiers will once again be able to purchase personalized Indiana license plates because of a decision issued late yesterday in Marion Superior Court.
The Court found that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles violated Indiana law in July of 2013 when it suspended the personalized license plate program, and it ordered that the program be immediately reinstated.
The Court further found that the standards the BMV was using to assess the appropriateness of personalized license plates violated the First Amendment and Indiana law and ordered that they cease being used.
The class action lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of Corporal Rodney G. Vawter, a Greenfield, Indiana, police officer whose personalized license plate (PLP) of “0INK” was revoked for being inappropriate, even though it had been approved by the Fraternal Order of Police for use on its specialty plate. The BMV had previously approved Corporal Vawter’s plate for more than three years.
Another plaintiff, Jay Voigt of Allen County, had had his personalized license plate of “UNHOLY” revoked as inappropriate as well, and was unable to reapply for a PLP because of the suspension.
“The First Amendment prevents arbitrary decision making when it comes to expression,” said ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Kenneth J. Falk. “The standards used by the BMV here were so arbitrary that it denied such plates as ‘NOBAMA,’ ‘SEXYGRMA,’ and ‘BIBLE H8R,’ while approving ‘GOBAMA,’ ‘FOXYGMA,’ and ‘BIBLE4M.’ The Court properly recognized that the BMV does not have in place adequate, lawful, and constitutional standards to assess personalized license plates.”
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