Spend as much time on the road as we have lately, and you can’t help but marvel at the unrestrained proliferation of expressive license plates.
Back when plates were stamped out of metal by convicts, you got a few numbers, a few letters, and a state motto. You had to put a bumper sticker on your car if you wanted to proclaim your love of beagles, your support for firefighters, or your home-spun values.
The state motto is no longer sufficient—states now let you exercise your right to free speech on your license plate, for a price. In most states, your organization can apply to have a specialty plate issued, and if it’s approved you can promote your school, your hobby, or your opinion right there on your car for all to see. These organizations and the states both make money from the extra fees, and of course the sponsors love the free advertising. Specialty plates are possible because they’re now printed instead of just being embossed—that started in the 70’s, but it’s only recently that license plates as a form of personal expression have gone fairly crazy.
Seriously, you can declare that you’re Wild & Free in Nevada (with a rearing stallion). You can admonish the car behind you to Share the Road (with a guy on a bike) in Washington. You can be proud that Nevada was a nuclear test site (with a mushroom cloud). In Mississippi you can show pride in the National Guard (with a gun-toting soldier and a jet). In Rhode Island you can feature Mr. Potato Head (with, you guessed it).
You can praise agriculture and loons in Montana. Moose in New Hampshire. Oregon Beavers (with a capital B). Classic cars in West Virginia. Native Americans in Oklahoma. Lighthouses, panthers, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and largemouth bass in Florida. The Everglades. Yosemite. Now, license plates are just another way to “Like” what you like.
It’s gotten a little out of hand—so much so that in many states, law enforcement and the DMV complain that lack of legibility is dangerous. Several states are working on cleaning them up; in Arizona they want to standardize specialty license plates, getting rid of those busy backgrounds and limiting a sponsor’s artwork to 3” square. Arizona currently has 53 very different specialty plates you can choose from (and almost one third of drivers use them).
Nowadays, even politicians want to get a little airtime out of license plates. Several states have been legally barred from releasing pro-Christian ‘I Believe’ plates because they were proposed by governments, not organizations (South Carolina’s Lt. Governor postured that the ruling was “another attack on Christianity”). But knowing it was unconstitutional didn’t stop the Florida senate from trying to release two new Christian plates, one showing a crucified Jesus with his crown of thorns, and the other with a stained glass window and a cross. Two civil liberties groups raised a ruckus, and the bill died—but not before those folks scored political points with the Christian right. (Having spent the winter months in Florida I can attest that’s very big down there.)
And six states have approved Tea Party plates—co-opting the Revolutionary War Marines’ symbol and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ motto—including Virginia, which offers more than 200 specialty plates.
Given the proliferation of opinions expressed on license plates, it was inevitable that lawyers would get involved. Some courts have ruled that if the government chooses to provide a forum for private expression, they can’t turn down proposed plates based on the state’s own viewpoint. In other words, if someone wants to create a ‘Choose Life’ plate (as 17 states do by my count), they can. Other courts have upheld a state’s right to ban plates they deem offensive.
Soon the Supreme Court is going to rule on two specialty license plate cases. North Carolina got into trouble when they issued an anti-abortion ‘Choose Life’ plate, but refused to issue a pro-choice specialty plate. A lower court said, “Apparently, North Carolina wishes to celebrate only some interests of some of its citizens—namely, those with which it agrees. This it may not do.” The state is appealing to the Supreme Court.
And in Texas, a license plate with a Confederate flag was rejected. The Sons of Confederate Veterans argued that the flag is an historical artifact, not an endorsement of slavery. But the state refused because the flag’s history, including its use in opposing civil rights laws, suggests otherwise; the state of Texas didn’t want to be tied to the symbol’s racist message. The Confederate group is appealing. (I should say they’re filing an appeal; those folks are not that appealing to me.)
It’s not that often I hear myself thinking: way to go Texas! (On the other hand, Texas had no problem approving the Tea Party plate, saying the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag is just part of history, and “there’s a lot of interest in Texas in state history.”)
No actual license plates were used in this post.