Supreme Court Sides With BMV, Dubs Personalized Plates Government Speech

Nov 6, 2015

The Indiana Supreme Court of has ruled the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles is allowed to regulate what people print on their personalized license plates.

A previous decision by a lower court had ruled the BMV violated free speech rights and due process when it prohibited the issuance of certain license plates such as one belonging to a police officer that said “OINK.”  

The state appealed the decision, bringing it to the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled Friday that license plates are government speech and not personal speech. That means those free speech arguments don’t hold up any more. 

Additionally, the court says the practice doesn’t violate due process because having a personalized plate isn’t a protected interest.

Indiana ACLU counsel Ken Falk says designating the plates as government speech could mean plates with religious slogans such as “BIBLZ4U” would have to be regulated.

"As government speech, I believe they’re probably prohibited by the establishment clause because the government cannot endorse religious belief," he says. 

In a statement, the BMV says it’s currently reviewing the decision and deciding how best to move forward. The agency hasn’t issued personalized plates since the start of the court battle.

Part of the lower court's decision that wasn't contested in the Supreme Court concerned promulgation, that is, putting certain regulations about the license plate into official code. Currently, the plates are reviewed by a committee who, according to Falk, have a set of guidelines they use concerning plates' content that isn't explicitely mentioned in the state's code.

A recent case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the Texas BMV reached a similar conclusion.