Civil Discourse Now

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Specialty license plates should not be issued by the State; let's return to the bland plates of old.

   There should be no controversy over Indiana BMV’s recent de-certification of specialty license plates of three (3) groups, including the plate of one group that helps gay teenagers deal with the stresses of being gay, a teenager, and (I would infer; and perhaps this is the greatest source of stress) a Hoosier.

   License plates on motor vehicles serve two legitimate purposes: identification of individual vehicles and generation of revenue for administration of the system for identification of vehicles.

   The ability to identify a vehicle as registered to a specific person or corporation is beneficial to society. Amongst the examples I would cite are license plates enable assistance to someone who might be in danger (motorist pulled to side of road suffering coronary) and help identify a wrongdoer (getaway car in a bank robbery or hit-and-run in a vehicular collision).

   Indiana license plates used to consist of backgrounds simple, bold colors with letters that stood out physically and by color. The colors of the plates rotated each year, and were the colors of one of Indiana’s four public, four-year universities (IU, Purdue, ISU, and Ball State). The only quote or saying I remember from those plates was in 1966, when the plates bore the legend: "Sesquecentennial Year." Indiana was admitted to the Union in 1816. The only controversy I recall in those days was when New Hampshire’s legislature adopted "Live Free or Die" for its plates. In Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), the United States Supreme Court held that a Jehovah’s Witness’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion had been violated by New Hampshire’s motto. The motorist taped over the saying, was pulled over, and was fined.

   In the 1970s, personalized or "vanity" plates became popular someplace, and Indiana followed the trend. Somewhere, someone thought of using license plates to promote specific groups. Indiana followed suit. 

   Indiana Code 9-18-25-1, et seq., provides for "specialty" license plates. 140 IAC 2-4-1(a) is the administrative code provision that carries out the statute and gives as the purpose "to honor deserving organizations that have made significant civic, community, and charitable contributions in Indiana or are descendants of native or pioneer residents under I.C. 9-13-7-170."  140 IAC 2-4-2 sets out the procedure for a group to petition the BMV. The petition must include the group’s philosophy and purpose. There is mention of allocation of funds generated by sales of a group’s plates. The BMV acts as censor, both of the types of groups allowed to have plates and the messages that may be conveyed on individuals’ specialty plates.

   There should be no such plates. We should return to license plates that were dull, predictable, and easy to identify.

   First, the various groups’ plates make it difficult to identify the state from which a vehicle hails. That is important for purpose of identification of a vehicle. Specialty plates frustrate, if not defeat, the purpose of license plates: identification of vehicles.

   Second, the State, through its BMV, is not a judge of what groups are appropriate are what are not. The views of the KKK are repugnant to me. Nonetheless, its members have a First Amendment right to free expression. The State of Indiana should not hold itself out as a judge of whether a group’s views are acceptable. If a member of the KKK were imprudent (okay; read that "stupid enough") to paste a bumper sticker on her or his vehicle that advocated racist views, there would be little argument about the person’s right to paste that sticker onto what soon would be a bashed bumper. The same standard should apply to license plates. And the primary function of license plates is not to serve as a forum for various political views.

   Third, the State should not be in the business of helping to generate fees for private organizations through of speciality plates.  I believe the Establishment Clause is violated when to do so would advance a religious organization. And what religious organizations truly deserve to be recognized as legitimate? Is the State going there? Will a determination be made based upon whether the religion is Christian? If so, will complete immersion during baptizing be one factor in the test?

   We should return to the bland license plates of days of old. If we do not use the colors of Indiana’s public universities (more than four now), just use the primary and secondary colors with black, white, and gray added. There should be no controversy about license plates.        


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Comment by Mark Small on April 2, 2012 at 6:40pm


I appreciate your offer of a contrarian opinion.

1) The difficulty in identifying the state of origin lies in the non-uniformity of something used for identification, in part, because there is a pattern or standard of form. In many instances, when a person only has a glance at a license plate, those instances are in contexts of crisis when a second or two might be all that are available. If a vehicle collides with another vehicle and leaves the scene, increased difficulty in identifcation of state of origin---much less the individual plate number---could mean a great deal. The baby being thrown out is what? Is it a purpose greater than that originally for which license plates were created?

2) We have seen how criteria are applied by the BMV. Vehicular license plates have become a matter for discrimination. Perhaps your next suggestion would be that we allow similar programs for drivers' licenses. A common form of ID becomes something that is difficult to discern. As for NFP organizations: I named one in my blog. Perhaps the KKK would not use proceeds for its operating expenses. Still, the State would be active in advancing an organization with which many people have disagreement. I ould have the same view as to a license plate for any left-wing organization, my alma mater, or the Chicago Cubs (and I don't know that the Cubs are run for profit; they toss a lot of money away on mediocre to worse ballplayers).

3) The criteria as outlined include exercise of judgment in the statute and the Indiana Administrative Code about organizations that are somehow proper. And yes---are you prescient?---I am offended by the term "In God We Trust" on currency, etc. We can have that conversation another time.

I do not see how free enterprise enters into the matter. These are NFPs. There is no enterprise. Rather, it seems like government aid to organizations that must pass certain ideological muster. If we want freedom of expression, use the car's bumper. Leave the license plates alone. The plate already is mandated. It is there for a purpose. Freedom of expression spans the entirety of the car. And I find your choice of words interesting. I am pro-choice, but again that probably is a discussion for a different time.    

Comment by paul wheeler on April 2, 2012 at 10:07am

Let me offer a contrarian opinion on a Monday morning based on your 3 points:

1)Difficult to identify?  Then tweak the flaw with a redesign.  Why throw the baby out with the bath water?  Would you throw out your whole dinner because you couldn't identify the dressing on your salad?

2) BMV not the judge of messages? Maybe, but would you rather leave it to the legislature?  Secondly, the criteria is pretty simple: not for profit status with statewide impact, money derived not used for operating expenses of the organization but for unique projects, and 500 signatures of people who will commit to buying the plate.   So how hard is that.  No one is twisting your arm to pay for messages you don't agree with so if you're opinionated message challenged, don't purchase.

3) Government shouldn't assist in helping companies generate revenue?  Maybe, but the revenue is for special projects for non-profits; not operating expenses, so what's the beef?  Secondly, you mention the establishment clause suggesting the state could be the determinant of compliance to Christianity.  I'm afraid that argument is too absurd when the criteria have been outlined previously.  The fact that you as an athiest would seize on the religious angle is no surprise considering you are probably offended at the words "In God We Trust" on plates, on the currency in your pocket, and the inscribed walls of public buildings.   

One of the few times the government actually offers free enterprise options to individuals and you turn your nose up at it?  The thought of going back to a mandated plate and cutting off options runs contrary to the American spirit.  I am for more freedom; not less.  The more options I have in freedom to choose gives me hope of a more government friendly relationship to the people; yes, a small simple token, but one we shouldn't overlook. 



Comment by Paul K. Ogden on April 2, 2012 at 8:46am

Gee, Mark Small making sense and it's not April Fools Day.  I agree with what Mark Small says here.  Okay, I"m not 100% behind the Establishment Clause (or Indiana's version of it).  But that may be due to the fact I haven't had enough coffee yet.  I definitely agree that the State has no business picking and choosing which groups get to have speech through the issuance of license plates.


Before the era of speciality plates, Indiana was known for consistently having the ugliest license plates in the country.  I'm still confident someone somewhere can design us a decent plate, but I agree we need to move back to one standard plate.


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