Sunday, May 06, 2007

Free Speech Isn't Dead in South Dakota!

...but it's certainly on the critical list.

One of my Far-Flung Correspondents, Jerry, sent me a copy of an article by Kevin Woster of the Rapid City Journal, "State looks to pull anti-Bush license plate." I've pasted the article below, in case the link disappears after a few days (as is newspapers' wont), but the gist is this:

A woman out on the western edge of the state has a vanity plate that reads MPEACHW. Impeach W...get it? Okay, someone, naturally, took offense at the idea of someone expressing an opinion contrary to his or her own, and whined about it to the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Naturally, the folks at the DMV told the anonymous whiner to grow up and...oh. Sorry. I must have dozed off for a second there and had a dream, for of course the DMV did nothing so sensible but rather is now wasting my tax dollars in a hard-hitting attempt to get this woman to surrender the offensive license plates. Yep, that's right--a single anonymous complaint is all it takes for the guts-free bureaucrats of the state I currently call home to jump into action and wrestle that hunk of sheet metal--which, incidentally, they sold her in the first place--off the the bumper of her Prius before anyone else can be offended!

Good to know these intrepid souls are on the case.

Only a cynic would wonder if there would be all the fuss if this were happening 10 years ago and the license plate in question read MPEACHBILL. (Too many letters for a South Dakota vanity plate--it would have to be something like MPCHBIL--but you get the drift.) Being a cynic, I certainly do so wonder. No, actually, I don't wonder at all.

If there is a comedic angle to the brouhaha, it is this: Conservatives often enjoy portraying progressives as crybabies who rush to the government whenever they're "offended" by something. Political correctness, they call this, sneeringly. The bloke behind the resolutely unfunny comic strip "Mallard Fillmore" frequently references the "perpetually offended" or "permanently offended" or whatever term he might use to belittle people who think that a degree of civility, even kindness is not uncalled for.

And yet what do we have here? Someone presumably on the right end of the political spectrum who is deeply offended because someone else thinks we should impeach Dubya, and has the temerity to actually express her thoughts, where people can read them, or have them read to them, and everything! (On her tree-hugging Japanese hybrid car, no less; could this be any more perfect?)

And so this person anonymously complains to the government to make sure that this and similar instances of free-speech-that-I-don't-agree-with are nipped in the bud.

And the government of this Republican stronghold gleefully complies.

My friend Jerry writes, "This reminds me of the imbroglio when a gay rights group wanted to clean up a section of the one of the interstates. At the time, such organizations were entitled to a sign informing passers-by who was responsible. The governor canceled the program."

The governor in office back then was a Republican too, of course.

Interestingly, the DMV is hiding behind a section of state law which gives it, according to the Journal article, "the right to refuse to issue 'any letter combination which carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency.'"

But the DMV already issued the plates! Where were these watchdogs of public safety at the time?

In defending the department's stand, the DMV director is quoted thus: “I’m following the letter of the law. It’s offensive to someone and not in good taste and decency."

Really? How so? Offensive, obviously...but "not in good taste and decency"? An interesting statement, coming from the top dog of a department that approved the vanity plates I saw on a car on my street a couple of years ago: GO TOPLS--Go Topless.

That, apparently, met the DMV's high standards for "good taste and decency"...whatever they may be!

State looks to pull anti-Bush license plate
By Kevin Woster,

Rapid City Journal
4 May 2007

RAPID CITY -- Heather Moriah loves the personalized license plates on her silver Prius encouraging the impeachment of President George W. Bush.

But somebody doesn’t agree. And that somebody complained to the state. Now, the South Dakota Division of Motor Vehicles is trying to recall the plates -- which read MPEACHW. And if Moriah doesn’t turn them in voluntarily, the state might send law-enforcement officers to pick them up.

Even so, she’s not immediately inclined to cooperate.

“I don’t think I’m going to play,” Moriah said Thursday afternoon. “The plate isn’t in poor taste. It‘s not sexual in nature or pornographic. To me, a political message should not be considered offensive.”

But Division of Motor Vehicles director Deb Hillmer said Thursday that the law clearly gives the state authority to recall the plates and have them forcibly removed if necessary. And although only one person complained about Moriah’s political statement, that’s all it takes to recall a set of vanity plates, Hillmer said.

“I’m following the letter of the law,” she said. “It’s offensive to someone and not in good taste and decency. And the plates are the property of the state of South Dakota.”

State law declares motor vehicle licenses plates to be the property of the state as long as the plates are valid. The law also allows personalized plates with as many as seven letters for an extra $25 fee. But it gives DMV officials the right to refuse to issue “any letter combination which carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”

Hillmer said MPEACHW meets that criterion. The plates never would have been issued if DMV officials had caught their meaning at the time Moriah applied, Hillmer said.

“This was one that we apparently missed when it came through originally, and we received a complaint from an individual that found it offensive,” she said, declining to identify the individual or provide the contents of the complaint. “I don’t think we ever would have issued it if we’d have picked up on what it was inferring.”

Moriah said she bought the 2005 Prius late last summer and fitted it with personalized plates similar to those her partner, Curt Finnegan, had on his blue 2004 Prius. His plates actually read: IMPCH-W.

Moriah said has received plenty of positive reactions in public to her plates and that negative responses have been rare. So she was surprised to receive the April 18 letter from the DMV announcing the recall and giving her 10 days to turn in the plates at the Pennington County Treasurer’s Office or the DMV office in Pierre.

The letter said DMV would issue a refund on the months remaining on Moriah’s license.

She is hesitant to give up the plates, however, because she believes her free-speech rights are being unnecessarily limited.

“It’s kind of sad to me,” she said. “For one person to be able to say they’re offended because it’s different from their political beliefs seems really arbitrary. And I don’t think the law is very clear about what ‘offensive’ means.”

Hillmer said the law gives the state great latitude in making that determination. Moriah is free to exercise her free-speech rights in ways that don’t involve state property or implied state sanction of a given message, Hillemr said.

“They have every right to use that free speech, but they need to do it with a bumper sticker,” she said. “That plate is property of South Dakota. And that (message) is not something the state should advocate.”

It wouldn’t matter if the political message or the president were different, it would be inappropriate on a state plate, Hillmer said.

Moriah has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which intends to protest the recall in a letter to the state. Moriah said it’s unlikely the ACLU will pursue legal action, in part because she is planning a move to Pennsylvanian in the next couple of months.

Finnegan already has moved there and replaced his South Dakota plates for Pennsylvania plates, Moriah said. Moriah hopes to leave in June or July, with her plates still intact. Hillmer said it might not work out that way.

“We may have law enforcement go pick them up if we receive more complaints about it,” she said. “If she returns them, we’ll make her new plates. If we have to go pick them up, we probably won’t.”

Hillmer has been with DMV for more than 20 years. She remembers five or six instances when so-called vanity plates were recalled. One of them said “SNIPER” and another “OLDFART.”

Moriah is the only person to complain about a recall, Hillmer said.

Rapid City lawyer Patrick Duffy said there’s plenty of reason to complain. Duffy, who has worked on key civil rights cases involving American Indian voting issues, said action by the state means that any personalized plate must be recalled because of a single complaint, no matter what the message.

“What this means is that every atheist can now wipe out anything that seems to refer to God,” Duffy said. “Will vanity plates for members of the armed forces suddenly be declared offensive if they offend a single pacifist? It’s absolutely preposterous.”

Even obscenity must be judged by the mores and standards of a community, not just one offended individual, Duffy said.

“Here, all we need is one lone citizen who is apparently invested with the complete authority to determine what is good taste and decency for all the rest of us,” he said. “It seems a little tyrannical to me.”

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