Justices: Personalized licenses plates are government speech

The Indiana Supreme Court Friday upheld the Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ process for approving or denying requests for personalized license plates after finding the plates are government speech. A Marion County judge ruled last year the statute governing personalized license plates is unconstitutional.

The class-action lawsuit stems from the BMV’s revocation of Rodney Vawter’s “0INK” license plate after he had been issued the plate for several years. When the BMV in 2013 rejected an Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police personalized license plate reading "O1NK," the BMV's computer system flagged Vawter's plate as similar to a rejected plate. Vawter is a corporal in the Greenfield Police Department.  The BMV then revoked Vawter's personalized plate. After this lawsuit was filed, the BMV suspended its PLP program.

The BMV, citing the Supreme Court of the United States decision in Walker v. Tex. Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 2239, 192 L.Ed.2d 274 (2015), argues its decision-making process on PLPs is constitutional because personalized plates are government speech.

In Walker, the Supreme Court identified a three-factor standard for identifying government speech: whether the government has historically used the medium to speak to the public; whether the message is closely identified in the public mind with the state; and the degree of control the state maintains over the messages conveyed.

Using these factors, the Indiana justices concluded that Indiana's PLPs are government speech.

“While the alphanumeric combinations on PLPs are individually chosen instead of created by the state, this difference is secondary and does not change the principal function of state-issued license plates as a mode of unique vehicle identification,” Justice Brent Dickson wrote.

Indiana speaks through its license plates, Dickson wrote, noting the slogans and images included on the plates over the years. There is an association of the message of the personalized plate with the state by the public and the BMV has effective control over the PLPs, the court held.

The justices also addressed the plaintiffs’ argument that PLPs are private speech in a forum provided by the state, but found that argument misplaced because Indiana’s PLPs do not fit into any type of government forum for private speech.

The case is Commissioner of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles in his Official Capacity v. Rodney G. Vawter, et al., 49S00-1407-PL-494.

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