Vanity Plates: Driver’s Free Speech Or MVA’s Profanity?

Did the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) unconstitutionally restrict a Maryland resident’s free speech by recalling his vanity license plate inscribed “MIERDA?” The Maryland Court of Appeals will let us know after it confers on the issue on September 27. The issue turns on whether the plate holder or government is delivering the vanity plate’s message.

In 2009, John T. Mitchell, a First Amendment and copyright lawyer and native Spanish speaker from Chile requested and received the vanity plates. “MIERDA” translates to “junk” or “s**t” from Spanish, and which, according to Mitchell, depends on a number of factors and who you ask. Two years later, MVA sent Mitchell a letter requesting that he remove the plates, which were issued in error. MVA maintains a list of vanity plates it has banned due to inclusion of derogatory, scatological, or obscene terms.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that although the vanity plate at issue was not obscene, MVA did not violate free speech by restricting use of profanity on license plates. According to the Capital Gazette

The issue before the court rests on whether the characters on vanity license plates are government speech, and on the classification of license plates as a public forum.

Mark Graber, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said that vanity license plates are “in part the state delivering the message,” and that “while the state cannot prevent you from speaking, when the state delivers a message, the state can determine what message the state wants to deliver.”

Mitchell, who represents himself in the case, continues to use the “MIERDA” plates.

The article is available here.