Court Enters Order Declaring State Ban on “Offensive” Vanity Plates Unconstitutional; Car Owner Will Keep “FKGAS” Plate

February 12, 2021 11:00 am

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U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy today signed a consent judgment declaring unconstitutional a state law that gave the Administrator of the Division of Motor Vehicles blanket authority to deny vanity license plates based on whether they “might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”

The judgment was entered in a suit filed last March by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman on behalf of Sean Carroll, an environmentally conscious Tesla owner who had been ordered by the DMV to turn in his license plate “FKGAS” or else have his car registration cancelled. In October, Judge McElroy issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the statute, concluding that it likely violated the First Amendment. The consent judgment entered today, formally striking down the statute, was agreed to by all the parties in the case.

Under the judgment, the Court declared that the statutory language at issue “unconstitutional on its face and as applied to” Carroll and “of no force and effect,” and barred the state from relying on that provision in the future in issuing vanity plates. The judgment also allows Carroll to keep his FKGAS license plate, and includes an award of attorneys’ fees.

In filing the suit, the ACLU attorneys argued that the statute was unduly vague and violated the First Amendment by giving the DMV unbridled discretion to ban speech based on the viewpoint of the message. In her October ruling, Judge McElroy expressed preliminary agreement with those arguments and held that “the revocation of the license plate, which would prohibit Mr. Carroll from expressing his views on fossil fuel propulsion of motor vehicles, would stifle him in an irreparable way.”

The DMV has approved over 41,000 vanity license plates, denied dozens of others, and maintains a list of more than 1,000 prohibited license plate combinations. The suit pointed out the completely arbitrary nature of the list – banning CHUBBY and DRUNK, for example, while allowing FATTY and TIPSY – and Judge McElroy’s ruling did as well.

The lawsuit noted that Carroll obtained the “FKGAS” license plate last year “because he wished to convey, through the license plate, a personal philosophical and political message concerning his views about gasoline-powered automobiles and the environment.” When Carroll purchased the electrically powered car, he explained to his daughter that they could charge the car with energy from their home-installed solar panels, and she said it was like “fake gas.” Carroll acknowledged that the plate could also be perceived as conveying the message “fuck gas,” and that he supported that meaning as well.

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lyons said today: “We’re very happy we were able to obtain a complete victory for Mr. Carroll and for freedom of speech.”

More information about the case can be found here.

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