UPDATE: On Feb. 4, 2016, the ACLU of Indiana filed a petition in this case with the United States Supreme Court. Click here to download the petition in PDF.
On Nov. 6, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a ruling that reversed the trial court's decision, saying "Indiana's personalized license plates are government speech," and that denial of a personalized license plate does not violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments. A copy of the decision, No. 49S00-1407-PL-494, can be downloaded here.
We live in a society where we often assert our individuality in small ways—whether it's holding a sign on a street corner, posting our opinion on a blog, or stringing together some letters to make a statement on a license plate. Fortunately, the First Amendment gives broad protection to these many forms of speech, and it requires governments to exercise a great deal of caution when imposing regulations on speech. In the case of Indiana's personalized license plate program, the State went too far when it arbitrarily revoked some Hoosiers' license plates and then suspended the program in July 2013.
The First Amendment prevents arbitrary decision making when it comes to expression, and the Court properly recognized that the State did not have in place adequate, lawful, and constitutional standards to assess personalized license plates.
The class action lawsuit, Rodney G. Vawter, et al., v. Commissioner of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles was brought by the ACLU of Indiana on behalf of a Greenfield, Ind. police officer whose personalized license plate, "0INK," was revoked for being inappropriate. Rodney Vawter had been using the plate, which previously had been approved by the BMV and by the Fraternal Order of Police, for more than three years. Vawter considered the plate humorous and an ironic statement of pride in his profession.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jay Voigt of Allen County, Ind., had his personalized license plate of "UNHOLY" –a reference to the rock band KISS – revoked as well, and was unable to reapply for his plate because of the suspension.
The decision in Marion Superior Court in May 2014 ordered the BMV to immediately reinstate the personalized license plate program and to cease using the arbitrary standards by which it determined, for example, that "SEXYGRMA" was denied while "FOXYGMA" was approved. However, the Indiana Supreme Court granted defendants a stay pending resolution of the appeal.