The Commonwealth of Kentucky violated the First Amendment in denying a man a vanity license plate with the message “IM GOD,” a federal district court judge has ruled.
In 2016, Bennie L. Hart applied for the vanity plate but the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet denied his request. The state agency denied his request even though the following license plates were approved: “GODLVS,” “TRYGOD,” “IGOD” and “NOGOD.”
Hart sued in federal court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment free-speech rights. The initial question for the court was whether the vanity plate amounted to government speech or private speech. If the plate is considered government speech, then the First Amendment claim fails. That’s because under the government speech doctrine, the government can engage in its own expression free from free-speech constraints.
U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove determined in Hart v. Thomas that the vanity plates were private speech. The judge noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans (2015) that specialty license plates were a form of government speech.
However, vanity plates are different than specialty license plates. Specialty plates have the same design and must go through an extensive process of state approval. Meanwhile, vanity plates are more individualized. In the Commonwealth, many people apply for vanity plates that express their love for the University of Kentucky (UK) basketball team.
Furthermore, according to Tatenhove, the public attributes specialty plates and their special plate designs at least in part to the state, but not so with vanity plates. “The Kentucky personalization program, on its face, is concerned instead with the individual applicant’s message,” the judge explained.
Thus, Tatenhove concluded that vanity plates are a form of private speech, not government speech. He then determined that vanity plates are a type of non-public forum rather than, say, a traditional public forum, like a public park or sidewalk.
However, even in a non-public forum, the government’s restrictions on speech generally must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral. Because the commonwealth has been “inconsistent in its application” of vanity plates, the judge concluded that the restrictions were neither reasonable nor viewpoint neutral.
For example, the state denied Hart’s plate “IM GOD” but approved several other God-related plates such as “ASKGOD” and “LUVGOD.”
The judge concluded that “personalized license plates aren’t just for U.K. (University of Kentucky) fans” and ruled in Hart’s favor.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).