First Amendment advocate fights to keep vanity plate

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration may have picked a battle with the wrong citizen over an allegedly offensive license plate.

In December 2011, the state agency sent a letter to John T. Mitchell of Accokeek, Md., saying that his personalized license plate MIERDA (Spanish for “shit”) should not have been issued several years ago. “Any combination of letters and/or numbers, which contains profanities, epithets, or obscenities, shall not be acceptable,” the letter stated.

Mitchell lives in Maryland, but practices First Amendment law in Washington, D.C. He has represented the likes of the Video Software Dealers Association (now the Entertainment Merchants Association) and the National Association of Recording Merchandisers. He currently runs a firm called Interaction Law working on First Amendment, copyright and other digital media issues.

Mitchell applied for the personalized license plate and received it in June 2009. He said he picked the letters “MIERDA” because he thought it meshed well with the state-sanctioned plate slogan, “Support our farms, our future.”

“We moved to a rural area that has a National Colonial Farm and other farming areas,” he told the First Amendment Center Online. “I had the state slogan and MIERDA is a form of compost.”

“Additionally, I speak both English and Spanish and have been interested in different uses of language,” Mitchell explained. “Mierda is a richer term than shit.”

Mitchell responded to the letter with one of his own dated Jan. 31, 2012, questioning the decision to revoke the MIERDA plate and asking for an administrative hearing.

“My MIERDA plates were first issued to me nearly three years ago,” he wrote. “To my knowledge, no one has complained about my MIERDA, but even if there was a complaint about my MIERDA, that is no basis for rejecting my MIERDA.”

He pointed out that Maryland officials approved agricultural support plates with the slogan “Our Farms, Our Future.” “By the time farm MIERDA becomes as old as my tags, it is generally appreciated as rich and valued composted manure, and certainly does not warrant the derogatory characterization as profanity, epithet or obscenity.”

“I do not dispute Maryland’s right to not issue any personalized tags, but once personalized tags are permitted, my First Amendment right to use the combination of letters of my choice to express a message or viewpoint is superior to the MVA’s freedom to selectively suppress speech it doesn’t like,” his letter concluded.

The issue came before an administrative law judge on April 23. Mitchell says the judge took the matter under advisement.

If he receives an adverse ruling, Mitchell says he may take the matter to federal court. “I don’t know,” Mitchell said. “The First Amendment advocate in me says yes.”

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