Soccer fan scores free-speech victory; DMV says previously rejected license plate is now OK
January 29, 2020
Los Angeles; January 28, 2020: Today, Jonathan Kotler’s battle with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) came to a close after the DMV agreed to settle his lawsuit challenging its arbitrary censorship of personal speech. The DMV will issue his personalized license plate, which the agency now says is not offensive after all.
Mr. Kotler applied for a personalized plate to celebrate his favorite soccer team: the London-based Fulham Football Club. The team wears white jerseys, and Mr. Kotler’s proposed license plate read “COYW,” an acronym for the club’s commonly used slogan, “Come on, you Whites.”
California law requires that the department reject plates it believes are “offensive to good taste and decency,” and the DMV rejected Mr. Kotler’s “COYW” plate because the agency thought the acronym could carry racial connotations. The DMV refused to change its position after Mr. Kotler, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Southern California, submitted news reports, letters and other evidence showing that the term had no racial connotations whatsoever. With the help of the Pacific Legal Foundation, Mr. Kotler filed a First Amendment lawsuit challenging the DMV’s arbitrary restrictions on speech.
After a federal court denied the DMV’s efforts to dismiss Mr. Kotler’s case in August, the DMV agreed to settle the case. As part of the settlement, Mr. Kotler will be issued his license plate on an expedited basis. The DMV also agreed to acknowledge that “COYW” does not and never has carried racial connotations, the DMV does not believe Mr. Kotler is or ever was racist, its decision to deny Mr. Kotler’s application was not meant to imply he is racist and the DMV will issue Mr. Kotler’s requested personalized license plate because the agency believes the plate fully complies with California law.
“We are pleased that Jonathan Kotler will finally be able to support his soccer team with a ‘COYW’ personalized license plate,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Wen Fa. “The DMV’s misguided denial of the ‘COYW’ plate shows that laws giving government officials unbridled discretion to ban speech they find offensive will inevitably lead to arbitrary results.”
“The freedom to speak as one wishes in the face of government opposition to it is central to what it means to be an American,” Mr. Kotler said. “My only regret is that it took a lawsuit to force the state of California to do what the law required of it. I will always be grateful to my attorneys at Pacific Legal Foundation for successfully waging this battle on my behalf and on behalf of the First Amendment.”
Pacific Legal Foundation represented Mr. Kotler free of charge. More information can be found at pacificlegal.org/DMV.
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Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 34 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 17 wins of 19 cases litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court.