Court News: Do you really know your s**t?
From a Decision of the MARYLAND COURT OF APPEALS
John T. Mitchell v. Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, No. 713, September
Term 2014, filed November 25, 2015. Opinion by Eyler, Deborah S., J.
FREE SPEECH CLAUSE OF FIRST AMENDMENT – VANITY LICENSE PLATES –
GOVERNMENT SPEECH – FORUM DOCTRINE.
Mitchell applied to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (“MVA”) for vanity plates that spelled out “MIERDA.” The MVA approved the application and issued the plates; two years later, it renewed the registration for those vanity plates.
Soon after, the MVA received a complaint from a citizen that the vanity plate was “inappropriate.” MVA employees investigated and determined that the word “mierda” is Spanish for “shit.” The MVA rescinded Mitchell’s vanity plates on the ground that it violated an MVA regulation prohibiting license plates from displaying profanities, obscenities, or epithets.
In a contested case hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Mitchell challenged the MVA’s action, arguing that, as an agent of the State, it violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech by rescinding his “MIERDA” vanity plates. The ALJ ruled in favor of the MVA, and the final agency decision was affirmed by the circuit court.
In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2239 (2015), the Supreme Court held that specialty license plates, which are custom designed and retooled base license plates manufactured specially for nonprofit organizations, are government speech. The Court stated that it was not deciding, in that case, whether vanity plate messages are government speech. Maryland vanity plate messages are not government speech. Although like all license plates, vanity plates serve as government IDs for vehicles registered in this State, it is clear from the unique and personalized nature of the messages displayed on vanity plates that the speaker of the message is the driver/owner of the vehicle, not the State of Maryland.
Vanity plate messages are private speech on government property. The level of restriction a government may impose on such speech depends upon the type of forum in which the speech is taking place.
Under the Supreme Court’s forum doctrine, regulation by the government of private speech on government property that is a public forum must satisfy a strict scrutiny standard. Regulation by the government of private speech on government property that is a nonpublic forum only must satisfy a reasonableness standard. (Both standards require the regulations to be viewpoint neutral.)
Vanity plates are a nonpublic forum. They were not created by the government with the intention of opening a forum for public discourse and debate; access to the forum is limited, and the forum consists of property that the government is regulating.
The purpose of vanity plates in Maryland is to raise money for the State. Because vanity plates are a nonpublic forum, Maryland may impose regulations on the private speech in that forum that are reasonable and viewpoint neutral. The regulation as applied in this case satisfied that standard.
The MVA did not violate Mitchell’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech by rescinding his “MIERDA” vanity plates.