ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CN) — A four-letter word is still a four-letter word even if it has six letters in another language, Maryland’s highest court ruled, upholding revocation of a vanity license plate that had a crude word in Spanish.
Unlikely references abound in the 38-page opinion, which includes mentions of “Seinfeld,” “the spirit” of George Carlin, a verse from the Bible and Vietnam War-era precedent involving a man who was arrested because he wore a jacket that said “Fuck the Draft” in the Los Angeles County Courthouse.
“What does Petitioner, John T. Mitchell, have in common with ‘Seinfeld’s’ Cosmo Kramer,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the unanimous Court of Appeals. “Both received and displayed on their respective motor vehicles, for a period of time, vanity license plates bearing words that had arguably scatological meanings. Mitchell did not give up without a fight when the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) recalled his vanity plates; hence, this litigation.”
Harrell, who is retired but was specially assigned to the case, explained the similarities between Mitchell and Kramer in footnote to the ruling.
“In ‘Seinfeld’ (Episode 107 (27 April 1995)), Kramer was sent erroneously vanity plates bearing the words ‘ASSMAN,’ which plates had been applied for by a proctologist,” Harrell wrote. “Mitchell applied for, and received from Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA), vanity plates bearing the Spanish slang word ‘MIERDA.’ It was conceded in the present case that the primary sense of ‘MIERDA’ in English means ‘shit,’ although there are other senses of ‘MIERDA,’ such as filth, dirt, compost, etc.”
Michell had the vanity plates for two years by the time someone contacted the MVA in 2011 to point out the obscene word. After a quick internet search, the MVA rescinded the plates. Mitchell fought the agency’s decision with a lawsuit in Prince George’s County Circuit Court after losing in administrative proceedings.
The Maryland Court of Appeals had the last word on the issue on Oct. 28, siding with the MVA.
“Although mindful that we risk being haunted by the spirit of the late comedian and social commentator George Carlin, we shall hold that: the characters or message on a vanity license plate represent private speech in a nonpublic forum, which requires government speech restrictions thereof to be reasonable and viewpoint neutral,” the ruling states.
In a lengthy dissection of precedent on private speech, government speech and public speech on government property, Harrell focused in particular by the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a veterans’ group that claimed its members had a free-speech right to vanity plates bearing the Confederate flag.
“Even though a witness to a vanity plate message will discern easily the vehicle owner as the speaker, because the speech takes place on government property and only with state permission, the message will be associated with the state,” Harrell wrote. “The state has a legitimate interest in not communicating the message that it approves of the public display of offensive scatological terms on state license plates and it is reasonable, therefore, for Maryland to prohibit ‘profanities, epithets, or obscenities,’ content with which it does not wish to associate.”
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