Many Americans love decking out their wheels with personalized license plates.
The 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger not only featured “JB 007” on Sean Connery’s new Aston Martin DB5 but also had Goldfinger himself adorn his Rolls Royce Phantom with an “AU1” plate—showing off his ego and knowledge of the periodic table.
The Ghostbusters drove around in a souped-up hearse bearing an “ECTO 1” plate, while Ferris Bueller and his pals ditched school for Chicago chicanery in the “NRVOUS”-plated 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. Even Cruella de Vil added a personal touch to her 101 Dalmatians ride with a “DEV IL” plate.
In real life, however, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) would never allow “AZZ KIKR” for Nicolas Cage’s corvette in Con-Air.
The state’s vehicle code prohibits any personalized license plate configurations that carry a connotation that is “offensive to good taste and decency, is misleading,” or duplicates existing plates.
Since “50” or “Five-0” is slang for law enforcement, the California DMV would certainly flag the “AWSOM 50” plate on Sly Stallone’s 1950 Mercury in Cobra. And, depending on the license plate reviewer, the DMV might not have let Christie Brinkley put her “Luv Me” plate on her Ferrari 308 GTS to woo Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation.
It’s understandable to deny sexually suggestive, vulgar, or racist wordsmithing on a government-issued license plate, but as Jon Kotler found out, the California DMV too often ignores context and common sense.
The DMV rejected his application for a custom plate with the letters “COYW,” claiming it was racist. The letters stand for the Fulham Football Club’s slogan, “Come on You Whites.” Without context, the claim of racism could make sense, but Kotler showed the DMV that “Come on You Whites” is a common phrase used to support the English soccer club—his favorite team. Fulham players wear white jerseys, and like Chelsea (the Blues) and Liverpool (the Reds), Fulham is one of many teams described by jersey color.
“‘Come on You Whites’ is like a secret handshake,” Jon explains. “It’s how we greet each other. It’s a Twitter handle, Twitter hashtag, and used by the team’s owner when signing letters.”
Despite proof of it being an innocent saying of soccer fans worldwide and the fact that few people beyond UK soccer fans know what “COYW” means in the first place, the DMV ignored context and reality and blindly labeled “COYW” as racist. “‘Come on You Whites’ can have racial connotations,” according to the rejection letter.
In addition to being a Fulham fan, Jon—who has taught constitutional law at the University of Southern California for 35 years—knows censorship when he sees it. That’s why he enlisted the aid of the Pacific Legal Foundation to file a First Amendment lawsuit against the DMV.
“I don’t like censorship unless there’s good reason for it, and there’s no reason here,” says Jon. “You can’t allow people like the bureaucrats in Sacramento to make decisions that are fundamental to what it means to be an American—and the First Amendment is fundamental to that.”
License plate bureaucrats work hard to prevent offensive plates from ending up on Californians’ vehicles, reviewing some 7,000 applications per month. But, the dirty minds of the California DMV have a unique ability to see smut in almost anything.
There will always be troublemakers who try to sneak in banned terminology—but plates such as “I MUST P” (because “My mom loves to party”) or COKEBOI (“Mother’s last name.”) are hardly a threat to public decency. There’s no excuse for DMV employees deciding arbitrarily what self-expression is permitted and what First Amendment rights get to be denied. For more examples, see our list of Top Ten DMV Fails: