March 13, 2020 – The ACLU of Rhode Island has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state law that gives the DMV Administrator carte blanche authority to deny vanity license plates based on whether he thinks they “might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.” The lawsuit, filed in federal court by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Thomas W. Lyons and Rhiannon Huffman, argues that the statute is overly broad and vague, and unconstitutionally gives the DMV unbridled discretion to infringe on free speech rights.
The suit was brought on behalf of Sean Carroll, an environmentally conscious Tesla owner who was advised by the DMV two weeks ago that, in response to an anonymous complaint, he had until tomorrow to turn in his license plate “FKGAS” or else have his car registration cancelled.
The DMV has approved over 41,000 vanity license plates, denied dozens of others, and maintains a list of more than 1,000 prohibited license plate combinations.
The suit points out in emphasizing the completely arbitrary nature of the list and the DMV’s decisions:
“Defendant bans as ‘offensive to good taste and decency’ the license plate CHUBBY but not FATTY; DRUNK but not TIPSY; HAJJI and HELL, but not HEAVEN or JEWISH; GUN but not GUNS or PISTL or SABER; HOOSIER but not FRIAR; REDNECK, but not REDNEK, REDNK OR REDNEC; and SLOB but not NEAT.”
“Defendant’s attempt to ban Plaintiff’s FKGAS plate as offensive stands in contrast to his allowance of such plates as FCCING, FKNFST, FKS, FUBAR, SKCK, and SNAFU, as well as such plates as DOGDOO, FACIAL, and OLDFRT.”
The suit also notes that the DMV routinely issued standard license plates that contained the letters FK and FU.
The complaint states that Carroll is an “outdoorsy” person who “supports environmentally-friendly policies” has installed solar panels on his house, and thus was also interested in purchasing an electrically-powered Tesla automobile. The suit notes that when he “explained to his daughter that they could charge the car with energy from the solar panels, she said it was like ‘fake gas.’”
The suit states that Carroll obtained the “FKGAS” license plate last August “because he wished to convey, through the license plate, a personal philosophical and political message concerning his views about gasoline-powered automobiles and the environment.”
Among other relief, the lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to bar the DMV from cancelling his car registration, as well as permanent relief striking down the state law at issue.
ACLU cooperating attorney Lyons said today: “The DMV twice issued the license plate ‘FKGAS’ to Mr. Carroll and he drove his Tesla for over 5 months with that plate on it making his political statement. No one complained. Now, after one unknown person complained for some unknown reason, the Defendant has decided the plate is ‘inappropriate and/or offensive.’ This looks like political censorship.”
Plaintiff Sean Carroll added: “‘FKGAS’ is my personal statement challenging everyone to look at the world differently. Gas isn’t the only option when it comes to powering your vehicle. My choice for a vanity plate has already brought more attention to alternative fuel sources and electric vehicles.”