First Amendment outrage of the week: Utah thought it had license to regulate speech

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Periodically, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original stories
  • Utah officials make U-turn on ‘SCNDL’ Olympic license plate

  • Utah thought it had license to regulate speech


    This particular story already has a happy ending, but it highlights a sad truth about freedom of speech.

    Daron Malmborg paid $50 for a vanity message — “SCNDL” — on Utah’s special Olympics plate, a pointed commentary on the political scandal that has dogged the 2002 Salt Lake City games.

    After nearly a year of driving around with the plates on his Chevy truck, Malmborg received a notice one day from the Utah Motor Vehicle Division. It demanded he turn in those plates or have his registration taken away.

    The happy ending is that after Malmborg complained and went to the Utah American Civil Liberties Union, the state backed down. The agency that oversees automobile licensing said it would send a letter of apology.

    But here comes the sad part. Listen to what another official, Lynette Byrd, said before the state’s reversal:

    “We just thought it was not appropriate to put ‘scandal’ on the Olympic plate.” Byrd, who is in charge of the vanity plates, said the SCNDL message should never have been approved in the first place.

    This is just one more example of a government thinking that regulating speech it doesn’t like is part of its job. It isn’t. If a state sets up a program for people to express themselves — paying for the privilege, no less — then it cannot get into the business of deciding that some messages are sweet and nice and appropriate, while others that perhaps make the state look bad are mean and nasty and inappropriate.

    If Malmborg’s message had been obscene, it would have been another matter — obscenity is not protected speech. But political views, under the First Amendment, are protected.

    There is no Department of Speech Regulation in any local, state or federal government in the United States. Can you imagine what life would be like if there were?

    Yet, sadly, government agencies at all levels repeatedly act as if good regulatory reasons justify the curtailment of speech. It happens in a million ways, large and small, probably every day.

    You can be sure they’ll keep trying. And if you think that as just one individual you can’t do anything about it, think of Daron Malmborg and his license plate.

    And still outraged by …

    • Prior restrainers, restrain yourselves
      Persistence is generally thought virtuous. But when lawmakers persist in trying to foist unconstitutional bills of wrongs on the rest of us, it’s a vice.
    • Barking up same unconstitutional tree
      Why pass bills to force people to be patriotic and religious, when the whole point of founding the USA was to let people be free?
    • Jailing journalist doesn’t serve justice
      Much more than fair trial at stake as California judge orders journalist Tim Crews to expose confidential source.
    • Cops disassemble right to protest
      Applying strange reasoning to when First Amendment ‘applies,’ Denver police order peaceful protesters to vacate public forum.
    • City’s limit on church attendance out of line
      Portland, Ore., official tries to solve neighborhood-nuisance problem by stripping worshippers of basic rights.
    • School’s art lesson doesn’t make grade
      For crime of displaying disturbing art, Sarah Boman is suspended and told she needs mental exam.
    • Breaking down his door shattered his First Amendment rights
      Town gadflies can be exasperating, maybe libelous — but that doesn’t mean they should be hauled off their live cable-TV shows and arrested, as happened in Winchester, Tenn.

    More outrage