5/9/2014New Hampshire Supreme Court Upholds Anti-Police License Plate
High court in New Hampshire defends right to free speech on a personalized license plate.
Drivers in the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire can express their dislike for police officers on their license plate as a result of a state Supreme Court ruling handed down on Wednesday. David Montenegro forced the issue by suing the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when it refused to accept his request filed four years ago for a personalized plate that said COPSLIE. The agency called the proposed plate "insulting."
"A reasonable person would find COPSLIE offensive to good taste," a May 12, 2010 DMV ruling explained.
Montenegro filed for reconsideration and received the same response, so in August that year he decided to apply, in order, for COPSLIE, GR8GOVT, LUVGOVT, GOVTSUX, SEALPAC and GOVTLAZ. The pro-government license plate, GR8GOVT, was immediately approved. He used the approval of one message over another as evidence that his state and federal constitutional right to free speech was being trampled. A superior court judge, however, refused to grant an injunction to compel the DMV to issue the COPSLIE plate.
The high court framed the question as an issue of private speech, the plate's message, on government-owned property, the license plate itself. The justices agreed with Montenegro that the regulation cited by the DMV was unconstitutionally vague because it was left up to the whim of employees to decide what messages were acceptable.
"The phrase 'offensive to good taste' is not defined in the regulation," Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote for the unanimous court. "Because the 'offensive to good taste' standard is not susceptible of objective definition, the restriction grants DMV officials the power to deny a proposed vanity registration plate because it offends particular officials' subjective idea of what is 'good taste.' ...Accordingly, we hold that, on its face, this restriction violates the right to free speech guaranteed by Part I, Article 22 of the state Constitution."
The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Montenegro, celebrated the result Wednesday.
"In this case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court reaffirmed the fundamental principle that laws cannot delegate to officials basic policy matters for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, as such laws create the danger of arbitrary and discriminatory application," the group said in a statement. "Allowing speech of all views in public forums is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. Our Constitution does not allow the government to restrict speech based solely on the content of the message, and we commend the New Hampshire Supreme Court for upholding these fundamental free speech principles."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 60k PDF file at the source link below.