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DMV said a USC professor’s vanity plate request had racial connotations. Now he’s suing

DMV said a USC professor’s vanity plate request had racial connotations. Now he’s suing
USC journalism professor Jonathan Kotler points to "clappers" handed out by the Fulham Football Club with the hashtag #COYW. Kotler is suing the California DMV for denying his application for a personalized license plate with the acronym. (Courtesy of the Pacific Legal Foundation)

A USC professor is suing the California Department of Motor Vehicles for denying his application for a personalized license plate supporting an English soccer team known as “the Whites” on the grounds that the plate could have racial connotations.

Jonathan Kotler applied for a plate that read “COYW”, an abbreviation for “Come on You Whites,” the chant used by fans of the West London-based Fulham Football Club, according to a suit filed in federal court Tuesday.

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But a DMV official rejected the request, writing that the configuration “carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency,” according to a letter included as an exhibit in the suit.

Kotler, who specializes in media and 1st Amendment law, appealed, arguing that the team uses the hashtag “#COYW” on its social media accounts and sells apparel with the abbreviation. Using the “Whites” moniker for the team because of their white uniforms is roughly analogous to calling Stanford University’s sports teams the Cardinal, Kotler argued.

A department manger wrote back saying the department was maintaining its decision, adding that “Come On You Whites” “could have racial connotations.”

Kotler’s suit claims the department violated his civil rights by denying the license plate.

“The 1st Amendment does not allow the DMV to serve as the arbiter of good taste,” said Kotler’s attorney, Wen Fa, who works for the Pacific Legal Foundation. “When government officials are given free rein to regulate free speech, they’ll come to conclusions that are biased, arbitrary and, in this case, flat-out wrong.”

The DMV does not comment on pending lawsuits, said spokesman Marty Greenstein.

California law states the department must turn down plates that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency” based on several criteria, including if the configuration carries a negative connotation to a specific group, a policy Kotler’s lawyers call too broad.

Kotler has been a Fulham season ticket holder for more than a decade and travels from Los Angeles to London every year to see the team play at Craven Cottage, according to the suit. He requested the license plate after Fulham’s successful 2017-18 season that saw the team return to the Premier League.

“When the government starts to infringe on our rights, that’s when the individual citizen must speak up,” Kotler said in a statement. “If we don’t, we’ll get what we deserve and will have only ourselves to blame.”

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