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.