A federal judge ruled on Thursday that a University of Southern California law professor can sue the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) after the agency rejected his vanity plate request.
Jonathan Kotler, who teaches at the university’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, is a “long-time fan” of the London-based Fulham soccer team and wanted to get a vanity plate that read “COYW” — an abbreviation of the team’s slogan, “Come on You Whites” — according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
After the team “enjoyed its most successful season in recent years” in 2018, Kotler applied for the vanity plate with the state DMV.
His request was denied, with an official citing a California regulation that prohibits a license plate that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency,” the complaint reads.
“‘Come on You Whites’ can have racial connotations,’” a DMV official wrote in a letter sent Kotler.
Kotler filed a lawsuit in April, alleging that his First Amendment rights had been violated. The suit also seeks to stop the state from “continuing to enforce the ban on personalized license plate configurations that ‘may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.’”
While the state filed a motion to dismiss the case, U.S. District Court Judge George Wu wrote that “the Court thinks it strains believability to argue that viewers perceive the government as speaking through personalized vanity plates.”
Wu continued: “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.”
The ruling comes nearly a week after New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said a driver in his state can keep her “PB4WEGO” vanity license plate — representing a shortened version of a phrase parents often tell their kids before getting in the car for a road trip — overruling the state’s DMV.