RICHMOND, Va (WTVR)- A Circuit Court judge in Chesapeake has ruled that Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles can’t reject vanity plates based on what they guess the applicant is trying to say, or if the message has an opposite viewpoint of an acceptable tag.
First Judicial Court Judge John W. Brown ruled last week that the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution (free speech and due process) got trampled last year when DMV snatched an Army veteran’s tag that said ICUHAJI.
Sean Bujno, who served in Iraq, had the plates for several years when a citizen complained.
“Haji” can be defined as an honorable Arabic term to describe anyone who has made a trek to Mecca, or a shorthand slur used by some troops in the Middle East, similar to terms like “Japs” used during WWII.
DMV can’t read minds and decide which was the applicant’s intent, the judge said.
The judge also said the state went beyond its proper scope of review— the plate’s message and vehicle make —by taking into account a bumper sticker that said “God Bless Our Troops, especially our snipers.
Also noted by DMV was Bujno’s father’s prior attempt to get the plate HAJIKLR.
“What they did is (use) external sources to say, ‘you know what? This is what he means.’,” said Andrew Meyer, a Richmond attorney who was half of the team that argued the case for Bujno. “That’s not what he means, and the government can’t do that.”
Meyer said his client wasn’t taking the low road with the tag. He said Bujno got to know the culture over there and was saying “I see you, brother.”
But even if he wasn’t, Meyer said, the state has no right to stifle that type of free speech .The judge agreed.
DMV must reissue the plates or come up with a Constitutionally sound reason for keeping them.
You can read the entire case and ruling below.
The judge also said DMV can’t have love without some hate – so called viewpoint discrimination. The example he used was they can’t issue a tag that said LV IRISH but reject one that says H8 IRISH.
This is a big decision that could change the orbit of the whole vanity plate world.
The state is still reviewing the 14-page ruling, said Sunni Brown, a DMV spokeswoman.
Vanity plates have dragged DMV into court or into the General Assembly before - for example, the fights over the Confederate battle flag being on the Sons of Confederate Veteran’s specialty tag or the plate that said GODZGUD.
This ruling could open the doors to many more challenges.
“I know a lot of people are going to be upset about it,” attorney Meyer said. “And I know a lot of people are going to be happy about it. But that’s the beauty of this country. That’ the beauty of the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not designed to protect popular views or ideas. It’s designed, actually, to protect unpopular views ideas from the majority.”