Today the Nevada Supreme Court agreed with the ACLU of Nevada in a case involving personalized license plates. The Court reached out to the ACLU and invited us to submit a “friend of the court” brief to discuss the appropriate standards by which the DMV decides which license plates are vulgar or obscene. The question in the case was whether the DMV had used improper discretion to determine what kind of speech is inappropriate when it vetoed a license plate just because of how the word was definied in the online Urban Dictionary.
Ten years ago, in 1999, William Junge got the personalized license plate “HOE” because he drove a Chevrolet Tahoe. His first choice, “TAHOE” was unavailable, so he settled for “HOE” and chose the Lake Tahoe license plate. It was approved and renewed without complaint for years, until 2006 when a single DMV employee decided arbitrarily that the word was offensive after consulting only the Urban Dictionary, an online source which defines words through user-generated content. Because someone on the Urban Dictionary defined “hoe” as “whore,” Mr. Junge’s plate was revoked.
Mr. Junge appealed the decision, but the hearing officer upheld the revocation, citing Nevada statutes that allow the DMV to prohibit license plates with any combination of letters and numbers that may be offensive. A district court judge reversed the hearing officer, and the DMV, apparently intent on getting rid of a license plate that said “HOE,” appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.
The Nevada Supreme Court reached out to the ACLU of Nevada and invited us to weigh in on the case as a “friend of the court.” We agreed because the case involved an important First Amendment issue: can the state have such vague parameters for approving vanity license plates that give unfettered discretion to individual DMV officers to decide what speech is and is not offensive? In this case, the DMV employee had relied solely on the Urban Dictionary to determine that “HOE” was offensive.
“The First Amendment means that individual government officials can’t act capriciously and just decide something is offensive,” said Judy Cox, an ACLU of Nevada attorney.
The Court agreed with the ACLU’s arguments that the DMV cannot make First Amendment decisions arbitrarily. Instead, the DMV must show substantial evidence proving that a requested plate is inappropriate. While the Urban Dictionary may be an entertaining website about the English language, the Court acknowledged that it is not a reliable source for decisions about acceptable speech. In relying solely on the Urban Dictionary to deny Mr. Junge’s license plate, the DMV violated the First Amendment. The ACLU of Nevada applauds the Nevada Supreme Court for its decision to permit the “HOE” plate.