The California DMV rejected a law professor’s vanity license plate. Now it’s getting sued

Can you guess whether the DMV rejected these license plates?

These applications for personalized license plates were reviewed by the California DMV. Can you guess which ones they approved or denied?
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These applications for personalized license plates were reviewed by the California DMV. Can you guess which ones they approved or denied?

A federal judge has given the go-ahead to a lawsuit against the California Department of Motor Vehicles by a constitutional law professor whose vanity license plate request was spurned by the DMV.

Jonathan Kotler, who teaches at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is a self-professed “avid soccer fan” whose favorite team is FC Fulham, known for their white jerseys and the fan chant of “Come on you whites,” according to a complaint filed by Kotler in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

After Fulham “enjoyed its most successful season in recent years” in 2018, Kotler sought to have the letters “COYW” emblazoned on a California vanity environmental license plate.

In response, Kotler received a letter from the DMV, calling the letters “offensive to good taste and decency.” In further correspondence, the DMV said that “’Come on you whites’ can have racial connotations,” according to the complaint.

Kotler — who has served as legal counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the California Freedom of Information Committee — filed a lawsuit, alleging that the state, in restricting his plate choice, was restricting his First Amendment rights.

Kotler’s lawsuit seeks to block the state “from continuing to enforce the ban on personalized license plate configurations that ‘may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency,” according to the complaint.

The state, in response, filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that “license plates are government speech not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.”

“Necessarily, the registration numbers displayed on California license plates are also government speech. Therefore, (Kotler’s) claims fails as a matter of law and should be dismissed without leave to amend,” the state argued in a motion to dismiss.

U.S. District Court Judge George Wu expressed skepticism toward the State of California’s argument.

In his order denying the state’s motion to dismiss, Wu wrote that “turning to audience perception, the Court thinks it strains believability to argue that viewers perceive the government as speaking through personalized vanity plates,” according to court documents.

“Although randomly-generated registration numbers, and license plates in general, may be closely identified with the state in the mind of the public, the same is not true of the personalized messages on vanity plates,” he added.

Wu wrote that parties should discuss how the court should proceed, but that he disagreed with the state that a motion to dismiss “is the proper procedural vessel by which to analyze the issue,” according to court documents.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.