United States District Judge, Mary S. McElroy, sided with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Rhode Island vanity plate-holder Sean Carroll this past Friday in a case that pits freedom of speech against state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) regulations. At issue is whether the vanity plate bearing the letter "FKGAS," shall be allowable.
Mr. Carroll owns a 2019 Tesla Model 3 battery-electric vehicle. He and his daughter reportedly found the plate FKGAS humorous. One local newspaper that interviewed Mr. Carroll says that the plate reportedly meant "Fake Gas" to the owner and originator of the idea. However, we feel it is fair to say most people would choose another first word in that pairing. Therein lies the start of the difficulty.
Like many states, Rholde Island will allow a vehicle registrant to choose a combination of characters to personalize the plate they receive from the state. The plate does not belong to the individual. It is state property. So, in essence, the person who holds the registration actually rents the plate. The state of RI has a set of rules surrounding the message choice. The crux of which is "DMV may refuse to issue any combination of letters and numbers which might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency." Before we go too much further, it would seem that Mr. Carroll should win his case. And the reason is that the DMV opted to issue the plate, which he currently has.
However, the DMV says that it received "a complaint." And it subsequently asked for its plate back. Mr. Carroll fought back with the help of ACLU, a group that helps some citizens fight for some civil rights (though they don't often back citizens in Second Amendment cases, or property owners in Fifth Amendment cases).
Friday's decision may not be the final say on the matter. It grants Mr. Carroll the temporary use of the plate. The decision says, in part, "...the Court finds that Mr. Carroll has satisfied
the criteria for issuance of a preliminary injunction on his claims that the R.I.G.L. §
31-3-17.1 is unconstitutional both as applied in this case and on its face as overbroad
and void for vagueness. Having met the “likelihood of success” standard, he has, a
fortiori, met the less exacting standard of Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) to withstand a
motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Therefore, the plaintiff’s motion for
preliminary injunction (ECF No. 4) is GRANTED and the defendant’s motion to
dismiss (ECF No. 12) is DENIED. "
The full text of the court's decision is fascinating if you are able to tollerate legalese. The constitutionality of vanity plates is still in question, despite many court battles on the topic. What say you readers? Should Mr. Carroll be able to express his opinion using abbreviated characters on the license plate that the State of Rhode Island charged him extra for, and issued? Or should "a complaint" trump one's First Amendment right to free speech? Tell us your opinion in the comments below.
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. Following his engineering program, John also completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin
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