Staff Columnist

'BAD LAW' censors Iowans' personalized license plates

Iowa Department of Trasportation Personalized & Specialty license Plates.
Iowa Department of Trasportation Personalized & Specialty license Plates.

The state government wants you to be able to express yourself, as long as you’re not too expressive.

Thousands of Iowans have custom license plates, offering seven characters to send a personal message to anyone who drives behind you. The vast majority of requests are granted, but the state also maintains a long list of denied entries.

Since the beginning of 2018, the Iowa Department of Transportation has approved nearly 25,000 personalized license plates, and added about 300 to the restricted list, the Des Moines Register reported this month. The Register also published the no-no list online, with more than 3,000 items.

Iowa Code imposes a set of restrictions on personalized license plates, several of which seem overly ambiguous. Words in any of these categories are banned by law — sexual connotation, vulgarity, contempt, prejudice, hostility, insults, racial or ethnic degradation, recognized swear words, references to illegal substances, references to criminal acts and “offensive.”

“DAMIT” and “YOUSUCK” have been denied. Apparently, some people are easily offended.

If you abbreviate your F-word, you’re still likely to get rejected, like the people who requested “BAMF,” “IDGAF,” and “IDFWU.” Look them up if you’re not familiar.

Even vague and playful references to criminal activity are off limits, including “BANDIT,” “IMBAKED,” and “OUTLAW.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

How about “BIGSEXY,’ “PRNHUB” or “GETSUM”? Nope, those plates will not print.

Both “ATHEIST” and “LOVEGOD” made the rejected database. At least they’re being fair to both sides.

The state practices prior review for custom license plates, but if your letter combination is later adopted as an offensive phrase, the DOT reserves the right to recall it.

I admit this is not the most pressing 1st Amendment issue, but the courts have spent some time considering the intersection of free expression and license plates.

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of a family that had covered up the “Live Free or Die” motto on their New Hampshire license plates.

“The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster, in the way New Hampshire commands, an idea they find morally objectionable,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in the majority opinion.

So the state cannot compel you to promote its own messages on your personal property, but the related question — whether, and to what extent, the state can censor your personalized license plate — is less clear. Federal courts have variously sided with and against states that block potentially offensive license plate requests, and the Supreme Court has not taken such a case.

I am concerned that laws like Iowa’s are so vague that they risk viewpoint discrimination. License plate regulations empower government officials to be “arbiters of good taste,” as some scholars have put it.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

A bureaucratic censorship regime inevitably relies on personal preferences. Even if community standards should be reflected in our license plates, I’m not sure DOT staffers are qualified to determine what the community’s standards are.

One man’s “GETSUM” may be another man’s “GOHAWKS.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.