Kotler v. Webb

California’s next frontier as speech police: your license plate

Case Status: Active: Complaint filed in the Central District of California on April 9, 2019.

Jon Kotler is a First Amendment professor at the University of Southern California (USC). He is also a huge fan of the London-based Fulham Football Club and a longtime season ticket holder. Wishing to celebrate the team’s recent success, Jon applied for a personalized license plate with the letters “COYW,” which stands for “Come on You Whites,” the team’s slogan based on their white jerseys. Despite the slogan’s popularity and longtime use, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) denied Jon’s request due to its subjective fear that the slogan is hostile, insulting, or racially degrading. That is absurd. Anyone who knows what “COYW” stands for knows its meaning is innocent. But whenever government officials are the speech police, they unavoidably make bad decisions: sometimes absurd, often unfair, and always biased. Jon is fighting back with a federal lawsuit. The DMV’s attempt to make itself the speech police led to unintended consequences. You can call Jon a sports fan or a First Amendment expert, but the DMV’s misguided efforts to regulate license plates have misbranded Jon as a racist.

Jon Kotler is a lifelong sports fan. As a child, he’d skip school to see the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field on opening day. He became a soccer fan in 1958, when he learned about a plane crash on a slush-covered Munich runway that took the lives of seven members of the Manchester United football team.

Jon has followed soccer ever since, first supporting Manchester United. Eventually, he grew attached to London-based Fulham Football Club when he saw them play at Craven Cottage, their quaint, family-friendly home stadium located on the banks of the River Thames. Jon has had Fulham season tickets for the last two decades and, now in his 70s, continues to trek from Los Angeles to London to watch Fulham play.

Here in the United States, Jon wears his fandom on his sleeve, with a rain jacket, a golf jacket, or his collection of Fulham jerseys and sweatshirts. A Fulham banner hangs next to those of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Orioles on his office wall.

Despite their charm and strong fan following, Fulham have historically struggled on the field. So when the team enjoyed one of their most successful seasons in recent years, Jon wanted to show his team spirit in a unique way: a customized license plate with the team’s well-known slogan, COYW.

Jon submitted his license application online, explaining to the California DMV that “COYW” stands for “Come on You Whites”— a team slogan and crowd chant based on the players’ white jerseys, as well as the team’s official Twitter hashtag.

To his surprise, the DMV rejected his application, saying COYW is purportedly hostile, insulting, or racially degrading. This, even though Fulham are among a number of sports teams identified by the color of their jerseys, such as Chelsea (the Blues) and Liverpool (the Reds). In addition, the team’s Pakistani-American owner, Shahid Khan, uses the phrase when he signs letters, and the team has players from more than 15 countries, including England, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, and the United States.

Insulted, Jon sent news reports that referred to Fulham as “the Whites.” He also detailed the team’s origins and the slogan’s widespread use today. The DMV denied the appeal, insisting that its determination that COYW was a racist term was final.

Jon, who has taught constitutional law and the First Amendment for more than 30 years at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, knows censorship when he sees it. In this case, California’s personalized plate regulation leaves so much discretion to DMV officials that they can ban words and ideas based on a whim and a hunch. The regulation’s broad and vague terms also allow discrimination on the basis of viewpoint by banning viewpoints—in the form of license plate configurations—the DMV considers negative.

Jon brought a First Amendment challenge against the DMV to stop bureaucrats’ unbridled speech regulation because it leads to absurd results—like banning a team slogan on a license plate.

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What’s at stake?

  • California’s license plate regulation violates the First Amendment because it allows DMV officials to ban a personalized license plate based on their subjective whims about its message.
  • The government has no business censoring messages that it thinks might be too offensive for our eyes.
  • When we give the government broad authority to ban speech, it will inevitably abuse that power—even to the point of absurdity.

Case Timeline

Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

July 09, 2019 Download

Complaint

April 09, 2019 Download

Exhibit 1

April 09, 2019 Download

Exhibit 2

April 09, 2019 Download

Exhibit 3

April 09, 2019 Download

Case Attorneys

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