Home Opinion GUEST EDITORIAL: DMV can’t defend its vanity plate veto power

GUEST EDITORIAL: DMV can’t defend its vanity plate veto power

Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Wayne Goodwin wanted to take a stand for equality. Instead, he channeled “Animal Farm” author George Orwell in declaring some drivers more equal than others.

Last week, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles commissioner trumpeted his decision to remove some 200 words and phrases from North Carolina’s list of banned personalized license plates. Many of the entries express support for LGBTQ people. Goodwin said such messages shouldn’t be blocked, citing examples like “GAYPRIDE” and “QUEER.”

“I don’t know how long the terms that relate to the LGBT community were on that list. But with my administration, they are coming off,” Goodwin told Winston-Salem radio station WFDD-FM.

Drivers deserve more freedom to express themselves — on that point, we agree. But Goodwin believes that freedom stems from his own benevolence rather than any inherent right to voice personal views. He makes no bones about the fact that he’ll flatly reject vanity plates he dislikes.

“My aim is to be consistent with our approach,” the commissioner said: “No plates of hate in this state.”

A catchy rhyme can’t obscure the obvious contradiction. There’s nothing consistent about a state official imposing his subjective judgment on motorists’ messages.

Government agencies lack the discretion to ban so-called hate speech, a social term without legal significance in the United States. Unless it falls into one of the nine established categories outside the First Amendment’s broad scope, hate speech is free speech.

“Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for an 8-0 Supreme Court in Matal v. Tam.

That 2017 case struck down a federal law allowing bureaucrats to deny trademark protection to names deemed disparaging. Two years later, justices threw out a similar restriction on “immoral or scandalous” trademarks in Iancu v. Brunetti.

Are vanity plates a valid venue for personal speech? Censorship apologists say no, arguing that a vehicle registration tag constitutes government speech. The act of issuing a plate, they say, implies endorsement of the message it bears, and declining to sponsor your slogan isn’t the same as suppressing it.


The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tried that dodge in Matal. Justices didn’t buy it, reasoning, as Alito wrote, that if trademarks were supposed to be the government’s own speech, then the government was “babbling prodigiously and incoherently.”

Just as trademark registrars couldn’t plausibly endorse both Coke and Pepsi, North Carolina can’t claim in good faith that “DUKEFAN” and “BEATDOOK” simultaneously enjoy state sponsorship.

The NCDMV has a rule that’s more formal, but no less subjective, than Goodwin’s mnemonic device. It says the state can decline to issue personalized plates if they’re “offensive to good taste and decency.” A federal district court in California struck down identical language in November 2020, and a similar case is pending in Tennessee’s state appeals court.

Because the line of cases dealing directly with vanity plates doesn’t include a precedent that’s binding in North Carolina, our DMV believes it has carte blanche to pass judgment on drivers’ speech. That limitless latitude is almost certain to be shortlived.

Either someone will sue the state over its viewpoint-based discrimination and prevail in the courts or the General Assembly will step in to rewrite the vague rule. Or, perhaps, there’s a third option: Goodwin can take himself out of the driver’s seat and settle for riding shotgun.

The commissioner ordinarily earns high marks when it comes to his stewardship of the agency. He’s successfully slashed wait times at driver license offices and continues to improve customer service. A skilled administrator and a likable, down-to-earth guy, Goodwin also is an attorney who surely knows “good taste and decency” won’t pass muster.

Goodwin considers himself an ally of the LGBTQ community. If the majority opinion in Matal strikes a sour note, he might find more moral heft in the concurrence penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who also authored the Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing same-sex marriage rights.

“A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all,” Kennedy wrote. “The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.”

“No plates of hate in this state” is memorable but misguided. “No censorship in North Carolina” rings truer.

Originally published by The Wilson Times.

Previous articleOPINION: Why did we elect Thom Tillis?
Next articleAlumni to headline UNCP Distinguished Speaker Series