LOS ANGELES (CN) – California denied a professor’s request to stamp “COYW” – “Come On You Whites” – on his license plate to honor his favorite English soccer club, saying the phrase violated “good taste and decency.” On Thursday, a federal judge said the Golden State must face claims the denial violated free speech protections.
USC media law professor Jonathan Kotler is a die-hard fan of Fulham Football Club, a soccer team he has followed since the 1950s. He travels to London every year to watch games at Craven Cottage stadium.
On and off the field, Fulham fans often cheer on the players – who wear signature white jerseys at home games – by yelling “Come on you whites” or using the shorthand “COYW.”
To commemorate the club’s successful 2017-18 season in which Fulham was promoted to the top tier of English football, Kotler applied to the California Department of Motor Vehicles for custom license plates to read “COYW.”
The expression appears in team newsletters and social media and Kotler’s attorneys said in court papers the term “carries no racial connotation.”
But the agency denied the application, saying in a 2018 letter to Kotler that the phrase contains “connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”
Kotler, who teaches at the professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, sued the DMV in April, claiming the denial violated his free speech protections under the U.S Constitution.
In June, California moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in court papers that as “highly regulated forms of state-issued identification,” license plates are protected government speech.
At a hearing Thursday in Los Angeles federal court, California Department of Justice attorney P. Patty Li said that as forms of government speech, license plates are not subject to review under the First Amendment.
“All vehicle registration numbers constitute government speech,” Li told U.S District Judge George H. Wu. “Even randomized numbers are speech because they communicate the identity of a vehicle, not just a comprehensible message.”
Wu asked Li why personalized plates, compared to the “dead and silent letters and numbers” in standard plates, constitute government speech.
Li said that under the U.S Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans – which upheld Texas’ decision to block a Confederate flag design for plates – vehicle plates are government-controlled and therefore constitute speech.
“But that’s not speech,” Wu told Li. “It’s a strange argument to make and in ways it goes too far but also doesn’t go far enough. Why would personalized plates be government speech?”
Kotler’s attorney, Wen Fa of Pacific Legal Foundation, said in court papers that Walker doesn’t address license plate personalization and instead covers expression of government messages, such as those related to tourism.
Wu said he would adopt as final an earlier tentative ruling denying California’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
A DMV spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.