A New Hampshire man fought in the state's top court Thursday for the right to get a vanity license plate reading “COPSLIE," prompting a debate about free speech.
The former David Montenegro -- who has officially changed his name to “human,” as he was called in court -- had tried to buy the plate multiple times in 2010 but was rejected by the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles. He sued, lost and appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The state's regulations say a vanity plate must “not be capable of an obscene interpretation” and “not be ethnically, racially, or which a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste.”
The plaintiff, joined by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, argued that “good taste” is too subjective, and therefore allows discriminatory practices in issuing license places.
Anthony Galdieri, an attorney representing the civil liberties union, argued that ambiguity in the regulation allows for arbitrary denials. “The standard is basically incapable of definition,” he said.
Associate Justice Carol Ann Conboy asked: "What is good taste? That seems to be the nub of the argument."
She cited three rejected other plates: “OLDBAG,” “NSANE” and “DNTHATE.”
“Those don’t suggest to me that they are accusations of moral turpitude, and neither do they suggest that they would be violative of good taste, particularly the plate that says, 'Don't hate.' That would encourage good behavior,” she told Richard Head, who was representing the DMV.
Head responded: “As to any particular plate, the reasoning honestly I can't speak to that. I don’t know, it’s not part of the record --”
“Because it’s entirely subjective,” interrupted Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis. Conboy nodded.
Head argued that "COPSLIE" makes a factually incorrect statement. "What you're saying is that all cops lie, they're all committing essentially a crime they're not," he said.
The justices wondered what would happen to a vanity plate application that praised police.
In August 2012, Montenegro submitted an application for a vanity plate reading "GR8GOVT." That was approved.
“What’s offensive to your good taste will not necessarily be offensive to my good taste, and that’s the fundamental problem with the regulation and why it’s unconstitutional,” Gilles Bissonnette, an attorney with the civil liberties union, told the Los Angeles Times. “The person on the morning shift could have a different perspective from the person who has the afternoon shift."
Other rejected plates include “EVIL,” “BADMONKY,” “CHRIST,” “DARWIN,” “DOIN-IT,” “DRUNK” “EATBUG,” “-JIHAD-,” “JUDAS,” “O-SAMA,” “RDRAGE,” and “WILDMAN,” according to the civil liberties union brief.
The justices did not say when they would rule.
License plate legal battles are not new. Last year, a judge ruled that the Virginia DMV could not deny a plate requested by an Iraq war veteran that read, "ICUHAJI," which can be read, “I see you, Haji,” referencing a derogatory term for Arabs. The ruling stated that the DMV couldn't deny the plate just because it denigrated a particular nationality. The DMV later told the plaintiff that the plate encouraged violence and therefore it would not allow it.
In 2011, Montenegro was the plaintiff in another case that went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. He wanted the Dover Police Department to reveal details about security surveillance cameras in public buildings. The court refused, saying that information could compromise police activity.