Government and Law

Vanity license plate stirs free speech debate

January 2, 2014
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The state of Michigan is defending its rejection of a vanity license plate and addressing the meaning of free speech.

Attorneys for the secretary of state's office asked a judge last month to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses officials of violating the First Amendment by broadly controlling speech.

David DeVarti, a Washtenaw County man, wanted the six-letter plate "WAR SUX," but was turned down.

In a recent filing in Grand Rapids federal court, the state, among other reasons, said the plate would be offensive to children who amuse themselves by reading plates on passing vehicles.

"And because vehicles often travel in residential neighborhoods, youth may be exposed to license plates from their yards or driveways," said Ann Sherman, an assistant attorney general. "Courts have often upheld legislation aimed at protecting the physical and emotional well-being of youth, even where First Amendment rights are concerned."

Sherman noted that some schools and sports stadiums have barred people from wearing T-shirts with the word "sucks."

"Drivers cannot avoid an offensive word on a license plate in front of them, because they cannot safely avert their eyes,” Sherman said. “And physically avoiding the plate by changing lanes may not be possible.”

The state considers vehicle plates to be government property.

Personalized plates are intended to raise money — not become a forum for free speech, Sherman said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing DeVarti and another man, Michael Matwyuk of Kingsford, who had trouble getting a plate that uses a variation of the word "infidel."

The state approved Matwyuk's plate in September after rejecting it and said any earlier problems were an oversight.

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