The Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles agreed Friday to sell the “NE420″ plate to Frank Shoemaker of Holbrook, a lawyer working to put marijuana legalization on the 2012 ballot. The department previously denied the plate because the number “420″ is associated with “a date and time for people to gather and smoke marijuana/cannabis,” said Beverly Neth, department director.
Shoemaker, with the backing of Nebraska ACLU, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, arguing that the denial infringed on his First Amendment right to free speech. The lawsuit brought the dispute to the attention of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who quickly advised the department to issue the plate based on similar federal cases in other states.
“They deemed it was probably a plate that might prevail at a federal level,” Neth said. “They deemed it was best to go ahead and issue the plate.”
DMV officials based their denial on state law that prohibits messages that “express, connote or imply any obscene or objectionable words or abbreviations.” In addition to its pot connections, April 20 is the birthday of Adolf Hitler and date of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.
Staff members review all applications and routinely use the “obscene or objectionable” standard to reject applicants. Some of Nebraska’s 60,000 message plates have even been recalled after the DMV received complaints from other motorists, Neth said.
While the courts have upheld the authority of states to reject obscene messages on license plates, they have cautioned that blocking plates simply because they offend someone is too broad of a standard, said Amy Miller, director of Nebraska ACLU.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a case in Missouri in which the applicant wanted “Aryan1″ on her plate.
Missouri officials rejected it because it was offensive, but the court invalidated the decision because it infringed upon constitutionally protected free expression, Miller said.
“The problem with offensive messages is that is simply too vague,” she said. “Something that is offensive for me on ‘The Simpsons’ is perfectly acceptable for viewing on prime-time television.”
Miller said she was unaware of other plate applicants who have fought denials. She stressed that both Shoemaker and the ACLU asked the DMV to reverse the denial before moving ahead with the lawsuit.
Proposition 19 seeks to legalize the private noncommercial use of cannabis in Nebraska. Shoemaker argued that denying his license application was an effort to silence a call to legalize pot.
“No one should have to fear government censorship for his political views,” Shoemaker said Monday in a press release.