INDIANAPOLIS (AP) —
A fuss over a police officer's vanity plate has blown up into a
constitutional debate that could lead to the Indiana General Assembly
deciding whether to rewrite the law or stop selling personalized license
The Indiana Bureau
of Motor Vehicles said it would file a notice of appeal Monday, asking the
state Supreme Court to overrule a local judge who said the agency violated
the officer's freedom of speech when it revoked his license plate that read
been able to buy vanity plates in Indiana since July 2013, when Greenfield
Police Officer Rodney Vawter sued the BMV, with the help of the American
Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The agency's website offers guidance on
how to apply for personalized license plates but warns that it is not
currently accepting applications.
Donald M. Snemis told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview that if
the Indiana Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue, it may direct
lawmakers to rewrite the law. This could lead to the removal of the right to
have vanity plates for all Indiana drivers.
"At that point, the
Legislature is going to have to have a discussion about whether we want to
have a personalized license plate system," Snemis said.
BMV spokesman Josh
Gillespie said Monday that the appeal would be filed by the end of the day.
Vawter, who had his
license plate for three years, won his lawsuit in May in a Marion County
court. He did not return phone messages or emails seeking comment.
In his June ruling,
Judge James Osborn also took on the BMV, saying it has no formal regulations
in place for evaluating the content of vanity plates and ordering it to
create standards that meet constitutional requirements within six months.
Osborn ruled that
the BMV violated some vanity plate applicants' free speech rights by turning
down some requests while allowing others. The BMV cited a state statute that
allowed it to refuse to issue a plate when officials deem it carries "a
connotation offensive to good taste and decency" or that "would be
The judge found the
agency's use of its own standards was inconsistent and biased. For example,
the agency revoked an "UNHOLY" vanity plate but allowed vanity plates such
as "B HOLY" and "HOLYONE." The BMV also rejected the vanity plate "HATER"
but accepted "HATE" and "HATERS." And while revoking Vawter's "0INK" plate,
it allowed plates reading "OINKS" or "OINKER."
Osborn ordered the
agency to restore the program under strict guidelines until it could write
new rules that don't violate freedom of speech.
The BMV argues that
the ruling rewrote the rules and would force it to allow offensive plates
that might insult ethnic groups. But the ACLU contends in legal documents
that the BMV is still allowed to deny plates that are defamatory, vulgar or
could incite violence.
Getting rid of
personalized license plates might not mean much in monetary terms, as vanity
plate sales accounted for only 2.8 percent of the $103 million sent to
license branches across the state in 2013, according to BMV figures obtained
by the AP.
it could have an impact.
"The Legislature is
free — of course — to drop the personalized license plate program. However,
I believe every state has one and it is extremely popular," ACLU Legal
Director Ken Falk said in an email.