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1AQSTN: does the DMV have the right to reject vanity plates?

The license plate reading
The license plate reading "OC MUSHR" (Orange County Musher) is seen on a car in Fairview Park during a morning workout of the Southern California Working Snow Dogs urban mushing group, in Costa Mesa, California, in Orange County

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Want a specialized license plate to commemorate your birthday? Your first love? Your family pet?

Whether your vanity plate gets approval is up to four bureaucrats in the California Department of Motor Vehicles, who sort through thousands of personalized plate requests to weed out those that imply “connotations offensive to good taste and decency,” according to DMV policy.

But do they have the legal right to reject personalized plates based on content? USC professor Jonathan Kotler says no. He filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday arguing that the DMV’s rejection of his vanity plate “COYW” is in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Kotler said the plate is a reference to the slogan of British soccer team Fulham F.C.: “Come on You Whites.” But the DMV rejected the plate, as well as Kotler’s appeal.

Whether the DMV is within its legal right to reject certain vanity plates may come down to whether they’re interpreted as government or individual speech, as well as the breadth and discretionary nature of the DMV’s standards.

We dive into the first amendment issues. Plus, would you want the DMV to end its review process for vanity plates? What are the craziest, funniest or most baffling plates you’ve seen driving around in California?

We reached out to Professor Kotler, who was unable to join us for an interview.


Wen Fa, attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation; he is representing Professor Jonathan Kotler in the suit

Barry McDonald, professor of law at Pepperdine University, his focus includes constitutional law and First Amendment law