There was a game show in the late eighties called Bumper Stumpers where contestants had to decipher vanity license plates. Recently, it seems that that the state agencies given the duty to approve or deny certain vanity plates are the ones being stumped, because courts are increasingly calling the words or phrases on these plates free speech.
Since July 2013 the state of Indiana has not allowed drivers to purchase vanity plates, because a police officer with the help of the ACLU sued the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) for revoking his license plate, because he opted to have the word “0INK” on his plate. Local Indiana judge James Osborn said that the state of Indiana was violating the officer’s freedom of speech and ordered the BMV to restore the program with strict guidelines until new rules were written that do not violate the First Amendment. The agency plans to appeal the decision to the Indiana Supreme Court.
Judge Osborn said the BMV does not have formal regulations for evaluating the words on vanity plates and he said the agency was inconsistent in its decisions on these plates, because it allowed plates that said “B HOLY” and “HOLYONE”, but denied an application for a plate that said “UNHOLY.”
The BMV argued that the ruling made it possible for a driver to obtain a vanity plate with words or phrases offensive to ethnic groups, but the ACLU contended that the BMV is still allowed to deny applications for plates that are defamatory, vulgar or could incite violence.
BMV Commissioner Donald M. Snemis told The Associated Press that the Indiana Supreme Court could force the Indiana legislature to rewrite the law, which could lead to a permanent ban on vanity plates in the state.
The approval process for these license plates varies from state to state. In South Carolina up to four people in the “Personalized Plates Department” examine vanity plates prior to approval. The unofficial final word on these plates in South Carolina could be up to prison inmates. Since the inmates make all license plates in the state, they find offensive plates that were missed during the approval process, especially ones that contain “prison slang.”