Men Sue After Michigan Rejects Vanity License Plates
ACLU says their right to free speech was violated
Can peace be considered offensive? That's one question that may be answered in a lawsuit filed against the state of Michigan.
David DeVarti, a Washtenaw County resident, says the state violated his First Amendment right to free speech when it rejected his application for a vanity license plate earlier this year. The plate he wanted read WAR SUX.
In a letter explaining the rejection, Michigan officials wrote, "selections cannot be offensive to good taste or decency." On the Secretary of State's website, officials say such determinations are "as judged by the Department of State."
The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of DeVarti and another Michigan man, disagrees. Daniel Korobkin, the plaintiff's lawyer, said Michigan's rule is "vague and subjective, and it has chilled a lot of very important speech that people have a right to express, whether it's through the license-plate program or anywhere else."
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan and parties are due back in court next month.
The lawsuit includes another plaintiff, Michael Matwyuk, who was initially denied a vanity plate that read INF1DL. Matwyuk is an Iraq War veteran. Enemy soldiers often called the American soldiers "infidels," and members of his unit adopted it as a term of endearment for each other.
He received a similar rejection letter as DeVarti, Michigan's Department of State uses internal guidelines to determine what it considers offensive to good taste and decency.
Those guidelines include: phrases or letters commonly perceived as indecent, profanity or obscene language, configurations of a sexual nature, words or phrases that portray negative images of racial, religious or socioeconomic groups, or configurations that are "unacceptable with respect to society's collective values, such as COPKILR.'"
Nonetheless, the vanity plate HERETIC was approved in Michigan, which isn't the only state to display inconsistent decision-making in determining what can and cannot go on plates. As many offensive plates were approved as rejected, a review found in Florida earlier this year.
Last January, Georgia rejected vanity plates that read "GAYGUY," "GAYPWR" and "4GAYLIB," but approved "JESUS4U" and "BLKBUTI." James Cyrus Gilbert III, who had applied for the first three, has filed suit against the Georgia Department of Driver Services.
In Michigan, Matwyuk first wrote a letter asking that the decision be reversed. In it, he wrote his use of the term was "an expression of my service as an Iraqi combat veteran and that I am, in fact, an Infidel." He received another letter restating the denial.
But after Matwyuk filed the lawsuit, the state reversed course and granted him his vanity plate in September, but his name remains on the lawsuit.
"That was great news for him, but it didn't really take care of the larger problem that the state government still took the position it could still censor whatever plates they want," Korobkin told AOL Autos.
Matwyuk, the Iraq veteran, and DeVarti, the peace-loving citizen, perhaps make strange bedfellows as co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. That only underscored the aim of the lawsuit, Korobkin said.
"That really makes the point we're trying to get across, that free speech is not limited to one particular viewpoint or side of the political spectrum," he said. "We're talking about very basic principles that all of us should be able to embrace."
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.
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