Standards used to accept or deny plates are overly broad, vague, and subjective

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A personalized license plate seemed like the perfect way for Lyndon Hart to promote his business, Rez Weed Indeed.

REZWEED plates, he figured, would be a great way to call attention to the Flandreau company’s mission of supporting the legal selling and use of medical and recreational marijuana on all federally recognized Indian reservations as a way of respecting and honoring and supporting Tribal Sovereignty.

But Hart’s plates were denied. The South Dakota Department of Revenue Motor Vehicle Division said the requested plates were “in poor taste.”

While Hart, with help from the ACLU of South Dakota, eventually got his REZWEED plates, he’s not alone in his frustration with the South Dakota law.

Personalized license plates can add a unique custom touch for many drivers, but state officials have put the brakes on some custom tags – and in doing so, are infringing on the free speech rights of all South Dakotans.

In the past five years, more than 30 percent of the personalized plates denied by the Motor Vehicle Division were rejected because they allegedly carried “connotations offensive to good taste and decency” – a standard that is overly broad, vague, and subjective.

Although only a few characters long, vanity plates are often used to convey a meaningful expression of the driver’s personal message, identity, values, or sense of humor. Unfortunately, the state is censoring the free speech protected by the First Amendment and is inserting its own voice in the place of the citizens’ voices of South Dakota.

That’s why the ACLU of South Dakota is asking Attorney General Marty Jackley and Michael Houdyshell, South Dakota Department of Revenue cabinet secretary, to direct the Motor Vehicle Division to approve all personalized plate applications previously denied or recalled since Aug. 1, 2022, for the reason that they allegedly carried “connotations offensive to good taste and decency” and to agree not to deny any future applications for that same reason.

The First Amendment prevents arbitrary decision making when it comes to expression. The standards used by the Motor Vehicle Division are so arbitrary that it denied such plates as “HLDMYBR” and “BEERMOM” while approving “BEERRUN” and “BEERMAN.” It’s clear that the Motor Vehicle Division does not have in place adequate, lawful, and constitutional standards to assess personalized license plates.

The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that license plates are a legitimate place for personal and political expression, and courts throughout the country have struck down laws similar to South Dakota’s.