WINE and license plates don’t mix, Oregon justices rule

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

SALEM, Ore. — Motorists aren’t free to say anything they want on vanity license plates, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled late last week in rejecting a retired wine dealer’s effort to end a ban on alcohol-related words on plates.

The Supreme Court on July 3 unanimously upheld state Driver and Motor Vehicles Services regulations that ban references not just to alcohol but also to tobacco and drugs and vulgar or sex-related words.

The case dates to 1996, when Michael Higgins of Jacksonville, a retired wine dealer from California, sought to put custom plates saying WINE, VINO and IN VINO on his three vehicles.

Higgins appealed on free-speech grounds after the DMV in 1997 turned him down.

The state Court of Appeals in 2000 ruled against Higgins.

Higgins argued that vanity plates, for which motorists pay extra, clearly are the expression of the motorist, so the state is not free to restrict plates’ messages under the Oregon Constitution’s free-speech guarantees.

The Supreme Court said a key element of its ruling is the “essential character” of a registration plate.

The court said the plate amounts to “a government-controlled device that carries a government-approved identification message that vehicle owners must display on their vehicle for regulatory purposes, unrelated to the suppression of speech.”

The court ruled that nothing in the words or history of the constitution’s free-speech provisions entitles anyone to compel the DMV to manufacture a registration plate with messages not approved by the agency.

The ruling, written by Justice Robert Durham, also said the DMV restrictions don’t violate free-speech protections under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Under federal court decisions, the Supreme Court said, a license plate is a “nonpublic forum” and DMV’s rules are reasonable restraints on speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Higgins, said the court’s ruling was displeasing.

“Of course, the decision is a disappointment to those of us who care about free speech,” Oregon ACLU Executive Director David Fidanque said in a statement. “We believe it’s always dangerous to allow government officials to decide whose speech and which messages are appropriate. The silver lining is that this decision is so narrow, we hope it won’t apply to any other government restrictions on speech.”

DMV spokesman Kevin Beckstrom said he believed all states have regulations restricting words on custom license plates to bar, for example, sexual vulgarities.

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