DMV SAYS “HSUS SUX” IS PROFANE
I lost count of the times my mother told me to sit down and shut up but when something is on my mind, I say it. And should an opportunity present itself to reach a broader audience with a message that means something to me, I take it, with both hands, and run.
Such an opportunity presented itself to me shortly after my relocation to Virginia. The state has found a way to make millions off our need for self-expression. Dozens of special interests license plates are available for a fee, and the best part is that you can personalize your tag for just ten bucks. What a deal!
So with a happy heart and a ten spot burning a hole in my pocket, I Iogged on to www.dmvnow.com, clicked on the link for Special Plates, chose my design and checked, by creating a mock plate, that my choice was available. It was! I completed the order and within two weeks, was the proud new owner of my very own, tangible piece of First Amendment rights. The plates read: “HSUS SUX”.
Responses from friends in the sport, animal welfare groups and the sheltering community were instantaneous as word, and images, of my plates spread. Choruses of “Amen!” were heard from each and every one. How amazing to be able, for such a measly sum, to open a dialogue with the public. What a simple way to have the chance to explain why anyone interested in helping shelter pets should donate to their local facilities and rescues instead of to the Humane Society Of The United States. How creative! How bold! How right!
In just a few short months of vanity plate ownership I educated countless people about the true goals of HSUS, and where their donations really go. Many who thought the money would trickle down to shelter pets, pledged to instead redirect their efforts to local causes and programs.
I was delighted with my opportunity for expression, proving that just a single person could help make a difference. Ah, but the rabid followers of animal rights fanaticism know no bounds and are intense in their desire to suppress any mention of the real agenda of their most financially successful group.
I received notice from the state that my plates were alleged to be a violation of the policy against messages “profane, obscene or vulgar in nature” and was ordered to return the plates in the conveniently supplied postage paid envelope within 30 days. New plates were included for display, no option was given to acquire an alternative message (didn’t I pay for the privilege of expressing myself?) and no refund was given. There was however, mention that if I disagreed with this declaration, that I could request an administrative procedure, at which evidence could be presented by myself and the Department to determine whether or not the plates violated this guideline.
Typically, the notice of relinquishment is only demanded if a complaint is received by the DMV. Such seems to be the case for “HSUS SUX”. While no one has stepped forward yet to claim responsibility, and goodness knows, it could easily be Wayne himself or any one of the more than thirty lawyers HSUS keeps on staff, we’ll likely never know who cried foul.
Not that it matters in the slightest to me. Anonymity is the last, frail bastion of the cowardly.
As required, I wrote a response letter including the request for the administrative procedure, which I assume would take place in Richmond. I included public records requests to acquire information necessary to support my position, and two attachments. The first was a declaration outlining why it was my belief that the plates did not violate the “profane, obscene or vulgar in nature” guidelines. The second was an article from Roanoke Times columnist Kevin Kittredge, published April 2, 2012 in reference to a reader query about a recently sighted plate that said “UVA SUX”. He quotes the VA DMV spokeswoman, Ms. Melanie Stokes, in regards to the phrase’s use. "If an entity sucks," Stokes said, "that's OK. 'DMV SUX' is a current registered license plate."
Wait, what? The Department’s own spokesperson went on record not three weeks prior to the date of my notification letter stating that the expression “sux” on a license plate is a perfectly acceptable format. And so it must be, because in searching for available plates on the Department’s website, I was met with the warning “Personalized message already taken. You can only purchase it if you already reserved this message or it is on a vehicle you own” when attempting the following combinations: PETA SUX (another message I can agree with) GOP SUX, MSFT SUX, DUKE SUX, VT SUX (sorry Hokies!), RAIN SUX, SNOW SUX, LYFE SUX, WORK SUX, I95 SUX and GOVT SUX.
There were many more but the last is particularly interesting, since it spawned a lawsuit. Steckbeck v. Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Unites States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division 1994. Steckbeck won on the grounds that though the speech may have been objectionable, it was in fact protected speech. The fact that a statement may be disagreeable to a person or persons does not alone qualify that statement as profane, obscene or vulgar.
In a similar case in Missouri in 2001, the 8th United States Circuit Court of Appeals (Lewis v Wilson), ruled that the state violated the plate owner’s First Amendment rights in denying her the requested message, stating “DOV may not censor a license plate because its message might make people angry”.
I’ve left a voice mail message at the included contact number for the DMV, giving them an opportunity to withdraw their letter based on the existing case law in Virginia and their own employee’s public statements. Why waste my time or theirs? If they refuse, I’ll be happy to appear and use the resources I’ve been putting together since I received the notice in anticipation of battle.
But I figured I’d give them the chance to bow out gracefully first. After all, I live three hours from Richmond and someone has already acquired “GAS SUX”.
Update! DMV letter came today- DMV backs down!
"Thank you for your recent letter concerning the Department of Motor Vehicles review of the personalized license plate 'HSUS SUX'.
The policy of the DMV is to review all questionable personalized license pates to determine whether they do in fact violate the guidelines set by DMV and therefore should not be issued. After further review the decision has been made to allow you to keep the license plate 'HSUS SUX'.
Please return to DMV in the prepaid envelope that was provided with the prior correspondence the license plate AEM-4326.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."