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 South Dakota Department of Revenue 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,” said Andrew Malone, ACLU of South Dakota staff attorney. “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,” Malone said. “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.
The ACLU of South Dakota’s letter to Jackley and Houdyshell 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.