It's time to do away with vanity plates.
For the most part, vanity plates have flown under the legal radar, but the time has come for the government to give up on this constitutionally corrupt policy.
Like the lottery, vanity plates are another thinly veiled money grab by the government against its citizens.
A Michigan case is putting vanity plates under the spotlight.
That state's scheme is similar to many other states' vanity plate programs. On standard plates, the letter and number configuration is computer-generated and random. For an additional fee of about $30, Michigan allows vehicle owners to select their own unique letter and number configuration for their license plates -- with limitations. And that's where the constitutional trouble begins.
Michigan's Motor Vehicle Code contains a "content-based" restriction: It prohibits officials from issuing a personalized license plate "that might carry a connotation offensive to good taste and decency." And there's the constitutional problem: "offensiveness" and "good taste and decency" are in the eye of the beholder -- the beholder here being whoever is reviewing the application.
In 2012, Sgt. Michael Matwyuk decided to order a personalized license plate that would express his identity as a so-called "infidel" when he served in Iraq. "Infidel" is a term that is commonly used by both enemy forces and our own military in the current theater of war, as explained by Matwyuk. It is not a word banned by the FCC or recognized as unprotected speech.
He began by visiting the vanity plate page on Michigan's website, and clicked on an Iraq War Veteran service plate, which allows six characters for personalized plates. Because the word "infidel" contains seven letters, Matwyuk tried the shorter "INFIDL," but it was "not available."
Matwyuk got creative and typed "INF1DL" into the spaces provided, replacing the letter I with a numeral 1. It was available, and Sarge selected it.
Unfortunately, shortly after, a letter from the Department of State rejected Matwyuk's "INF1DL" plate because someone -- a person, not a website program -- determined it might carry a connotation offensive to good taste or decency.
Asking for constitutional trouble
The law as written is constitutionally suspect. First, it's vague. Read the Michigan prohibition again. Once you have, ask yourself: "Do I now clearly know which words are prohibited and which words are not?"
Put another way, if you were asked to come up with a list of offensive words, would "infidel" have been in the top 20 of your list? Top 50? If a law does not provide clear instructions on its face so that reasonable citizens can determine what speech is prohibited, then it's likely unconstitutional as written -- before it's even applied.
An additional way a scheme is unconstitutional on its face is when the person making the decisions (like the official who wrote the rejection letter to Matwyuk) has "unfettered discretion." It seems pretty clear that the website first approved Sarge's INF1DL, but then a human later vetoed it, with, apparently, unfettered discretion.
Being offended does not an offensive word make
As a society, we have fatally mixed up the concept of subjective versus objective when it comes to offensiveness. Because an individual is offended by a word, that word does not thereby become universally offensive.
Determining whether something is offensive must use an objective standard, which means society on the whole should concur that it is taboo. Too often when a single individual is offended, we make the illogical jump to conclude that the material offending one is now offensive to all.
Worse, we now deem material offensive not for its actual measured effect, but for its untested potential effect. No one was actually offended by Matwyuk's plate, likely not even the person who actually rejected it.
Rather, it was banned because the official imagined some potential offensiveness. In addition to confusing subjective versus objective in defining "offensive," we've placed government officials in the business of foreseeing the future, with an overly cautious eye.
INFIDL versus INF1DL
INFIDL is not a word. And if INFIDL is not a word, then INF1DL is definitely not a word. It has a number in it! How offensive could it possibly be? As spoken, INF1DL actually doesn't even sound like "infidel." It's pronounced "inf-number-one-del." To interpret it as the offending "infidel" in fact requires a mistake by your brain, and an error in pronunciation.
Either way, the official who rejected Matwyuk's INF1DL had to reason that the number 1 is functionally the same as the letter I. They're not even the same species. But fortunately for this government official, no one will ever discipline him for erring on the side of supercareful.
And just like that, the First Amendment can be violated. It's not really the official's fault. Someone gave him too much power. That someone is the Michigan Legislature.
If "infidel" is offensive, it's offensive because of its religious connotation only. It's not one of the seven deadly words you can't hear on TV, and it's not obscene by itself under any test of the Supreme Court.
Therefore, Michigan wades headlong into another First Amendment quagmire: entanglement with religion. The absurd discussion follows: Is CRUSDR okay? How about ATHEST?