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Licensing Speech: The Case of Vanity Plates
U.Colo.L.Rev. (2001)
  • Marybeth Herald, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Vanity license plates qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment, and denying plate requests because of their content contradicts traditional principles of free speech. State motor vehicle departments are almost as creative as applicants when it comes to ferreting out offensive license plate requests through the use of computer programs and linguists. Offensiveness, however, remains an elusive concept to capture and often lies in the eyes of a single viewer. When the government takes on the role of arbiter of good taste, it leads to arbitrary decision making and chaotic results.

Under traditional First Amendment doctrine, vanity license plates do qualify as speech by the plate owner, and government regulation of plate requests is a content-based and viewpoint-based abridgement of speech. Although the government may have an interest in regulating some of the most offensive plates, it does not justify the wholesale regulation of vanity plates under an offensiveness standard. If states choose to open up license plates for speech, society must tolerate some of the offensive speech rather than distort First Amendment doctrine to resolve the problem. The free speech principles honored in Cohen v. California should be preserved here despite the perceived offensiveness of the speech.

  • first amendment,
  • free speech,
  • constitutional law,
  • license plate,
  • vanity plate
Publication Date
June, 2001
Citation Information
Marybeth Herald. "Licensing Speech: The Case of Vanity Plates" U.Colo.L.Rev. Vol. 72 (2001)
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