The ACLU of South Dakota, with Manuel J. De Castro. Jr. of DeCastro Law Office, PLLC, of Sioux Falls, filed a federal lawsuit challenging South Dakota's personalized license plate law and the Motor Vehicle Division's policy that infringes on the free speech rights of all South Dakotans. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Lyndon Hart, whose free speech was stifled when his application for a “REZWEED” plate was initially denied as being allegedly “in poor taste.” Hart runs a business called Rez Weed Indeed that supports and promotes the legal selling and use of medical and recreational marijuana on Native American reservations. He intended for the requested REZWEED plate to refer to his business and its mission of promoting Tribal sovereignty.

In the past five years, the Motor Vehicle Division has rejected hundreds of personalized plate requests because they allegedly carried “connotations offensive to good taste and decency” – a standard that is overly broad, vague and subjective and that is in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the rights of free speech and due process.

Even though the Motor Vehicle Division implemented an update to its policy in September to “clarify the approval process for personalized plates,” it doesn’t change or repeal any parts of the codified law in question and still contains provisions that censor free speech of South Dakotans. Additionally, if a personalized plate has been issued but later determined to carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency, the Motor Vehicle Division can recall it. 

“South Dakota, like other states, has created a system of protected speech through the personalized plate program and is required to comply with the Constitution,” said Stephanie Amiotte, ACLU of South Dakota legal director. “The First Amendment prevents arbitrary decision-making when it comes to expression. Although no one likes to be offended, it’s dangerous to allow the government to decide which speech is allowed and which should be censored.”

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.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in the District of South Dakota. A copy of the complaint is below.

About the ACLU of South Dakota

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of South Dakota is part of a three-state chapter that also includes North Dakota and Wyoming. The team in South Dakota is supported by staff in those states.

The ACLU believes freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people.  In addition, the ACLU seeks to advance constitutional protections for groups traditionally denied their rights, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ communities. The ACLU of South Dakota carries out its work through selective litigation, lobbying at the state and local level, and through public education and awareness of what the Bill of Rights means for the people of South Dakota.