Now the BMV is tangling with the ACLU again, this time over vanity license plates, of all things. It is suspending the vanity-plate program pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Greenfield police officer Rodney Vawter. For three years, he had a vanity plate that read “OINK,” with a zero in place of the O. When he tried to renew it again in March, it was rejected.
The BMV told Vawter the plate was inappropriate and cited a state statute that allows the BMV to refuse a plate that officials believe carries “a connotation offensive to good taste and decency” or “would be misleading.” But Vawter says he considers the plate’s verbal pig snort “an ironic statement of pride in his profession,” and the ACLU says that means the BMV is engaging in an “unconstitutionally vague infringement on free speech.”
Vawter seems to have the better argument. Certainly “OINK” could be considered offensive if it is used as an epithet by those who hate the police? But how can it offend taste or decency when used by a police officer as a matter of “ironic pride”? It is a well-known and respected tactic to take power from one’s enemies by adopting their derogatory invective and hurling it back at them.
It isn’t clear why the BMV is suspending the program, so it is natural to assume the people there are just having a hissy fit. Commissioner Scott Waddell says it’s to “protect Hoosier taxpayers from the considerable expense that these types of lawsuits bring.” But as the ACLU’s Ken Falk points out, the suspension has no effect on the pending lawsuit, so it’s hard to figure out how this protects taxpayers.
Now, the BMV has done some wonderful things in recent years. Putting so much of its business online has been a real benefit to people who have trouble getting to a license branch. And those who do have to go are amazed at how quickly they can get in and out these days.
But if the BMV is going to stay in the “this message is approved” business, whether for fund-raising or vanity’s sake, somebody needs a First Amendment refresher course. Vetoes are hard to justify and therefore prone to challenge.