Won: Federal judge ruled California DMV’s censorship of personalized license plates is unconstitutional.

Army veteran Chris Ogilvie’s military journey took him on four tours overseas, including Iraq and Afghanistan. To his fellow soldiers and commanding officers, and even on radio communications, Chris is known as OG—a nickname stemming from boot camp.

To his friends back home, Chris is known as Woolf. He likes the animals, has wolf tattoos, and worked on Apache attack helicopters.

After his honorable discharge, Chris bought a car—the first car he ever really cared about. Recognizing this, Chris’s fiancée offered to buy a personalized license plate as a present, and after a week of commiserating over ideas for the custom plate, she suggested the perfect plate: “OGWOOLF.”

Chris was thrilled to learn that “OGWOOLF” hadn’t already been taken by another California automobile owner and submitted his application to the DMV. Chris’s excitement turned to dejection however, when DMV officials rejected the application. The reason? DMV guidelines consider “OG” to mean “original gangster,” which is—by the DMV’s standards—too offensive for motorists.

Chris was also furious. The personalized plate represented a very important form of self-expression protected by the same Constitution and its ideas of liberty that he had fought to defend during his years of Army service.

In fact, any law that requires regulators to censor speech that they find offensive gives them free rein to make decisions that are arbitrary, biased, and unjust. Such laws are also unconstitutional, according to the Supreme Court in a case PLF won in 2018 on behalf of Minnesota voters who fought arbitrary polling-place dress codes.

USC professor Jon Kotler was the first PLF client to challenge the DMV’s arbitrary decision-making in court. His First Amendment lawsuit led to a settlement in January 2020, when the DMV reversed its initial rejection of Jon’s application for a license plate that read “COYW,” which stands for “Come on You Whites,” the slogan of Jon’s favorite soccer team.

But because California’s regulation was still on the books, allowing the DMV to act as speech police, Chris is fought back in a federal lawsuit. He was joined by four other Californians whose applications were similarly rejected on the basis of nothing more than a whim and a hunch.

  • Andrea Campanile is an attorney with the U.S. Army and proud owner of two Ducati motorcycles. Her first choice of a custom plate, “DUC N A” (for “Ducati and Andrea”) was taken, so she applied for a second plate, reading “DUK N A.” The DMV rejected her application, saying that it sounded like an obscene phrase.
  • Paul Crawford moved to America from the United Kingdom in 1985 and has owned a successful British pub in San Diego for the past three decades. His pub’s slogan is “Real beer, proper food, no bollocks.” Although “bollocks” has various meanings, Paul uses it as a synonym for “nonsense,” similar to the usage in a national television ad campaign by Newcastle Brown Ale. Nevertheless, the DMV denied Paul’s application for “BO11UX,” saying that the term had sexual connotations.
  • James Blair is a Union Electrician in San Francisco and a fan of the metal band Slayer. He hoped to express his fandom with other fans on the road with a “SLAAYRR” license plate, but the DMV considered the term “threatening, aggressive, or hostile” and rejected James’s application.
  • Amrit Kohli is a musician who identifies as queer, has a record label named Queer Folk, and owns the trademark “queer folk.” He applied for a “QUEER” license plate configuration, but the DMV rejected it on the grounds it might be considered insulting, degrading, or expressive of contempt for a specific group or person.

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 own subjective whims. 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

November 24, 2020
Opinion on Motion for Summary Judgement
United States District Court for the Northern District of California
October 05, 2020
Motion for Summary Judgment
United States District Court for the Northern District of California
March 10, 2020
United States District Court for the Northern District of California