Vanity license plate censorship: 1st amendment issue or state prerogative?

I’ve often thought of getting a vanity license plate. Unfortunately anything I’ve thought of won’t fit on a plate in my state due to character limitations.  But some people have no problem coming up with something clever.  They send their idea into the state and it goes though a revue process to determine whether it can be approved.  This is where it gets sticky.  For example, a US Army veteran from Michigan has recently had his submission rejected on the grounds that it might be considered offensive.

What I’m curious about is how the state determines whether something is offensive.  Not so much when it comes to blatant profanity, but on the more subjective issues.  The veteran’s submission was rejected because he wanted one that read “INFIDEL,” or a variation on that word such as “INFIDL” or “INF1DL”.  The offensive nature of this plate is not as obvious as a curse word might be.

He is currently suing the state of Michigan to allow his submission on the grounds that its rejection is a violation of his first amendment right to free expression.

I’m not sure where I stand on this.

As far as I know, motor vehicle license plates are the property of the state.  It therefore stands to reason that they could be the sole arbiters of acceptability.  It doesn’t seem like the venue where the first amendment would apply because the plate is owned by the state.

On the other hand, the state voluntarily offers up the opportunity to express oneself and charges a fee for such expression, shouldn’t there be more liberty than not in permitting submissions?  Is placing this discretion in the hands of one or a few appointed officers fair given that not everyone holds the same political, social, or religious views and they might deem something potentially offensive that really isn’t?  Vanity plates of potential offense are filtered through their sensibilities and I’m not so sure I trust their judgement.  Government bureaucrats aren’t exactly known for their common sense.

Also problematic is that just because some people are offended by a particular message doesn’t necessarily mean the message is actually offensive.  Some people are just too sensitive and easily offended.  Catering to such over-sensitivity only makes things like this worse.

  • Should the state filter potentially offensive vanity plate submissions outside legitimate profanity?
  • How could you accurately measure what is objectively offensive?
  • Is this a first amendment issue?
  • Should vanity plates even be offered?


  1. I think if the state allows people to choose anything for their plate, then there should be no regulation as to what it is. Either allow it or don’t – don’t go halfway and decide what is or is not appropriate.

    • I think that’s how I view the issue. The point is to offer a personal message for a fee. Pay the fee get the message…unless it’s not PC? Not a very equitable standard.

  2. I’m not a big fan of the State determining what is offensive or not either but in this case I don’t mind. Mostly because the guy has a pretty viable alternative: Bumper stickers.

  3. Vanity plates always seemed like a waste of money to me. I would not deny the state the right to restrict what one might want to put on a plate, but don’t see how they could be truly objective, nor do I think they would try very hard to be.

  4. Hmmm but isn’t the state owned by the taxpayers? Doesn’t that mean that the plate is owned by the people so the state doesn’t own the plate the people do…. As long as what the plate says is not offensive as defined by the numerous Supreme Court rulings he should be able to have whatever her wants on it.

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