“IM GOD” license plate is fully protected individual speech

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (ACLU-KY) and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Kentucky man denied a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.”

Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) officials initially refused ACLU-KY/FFRF client Ben Hart’s request in February claiming that the license plate message was, “obscene or vulgar,” but then later saying it was because the plate was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, namely those that allow government officials to deny plates based on vague notions of “good taste” as well as those barring personalized plates from communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages.

Hart had a personalized license plate with the letters “IM GOD” displayed on his Ohio-issued license plate for 12 years prior to moving to the commonwealth.

“I simply want the same opportunity to select a personal message for my license plate just as any other driver,” says Hart.  “There is nothing ‘obscene or vulgar’ about my view that religious beliefs are subject to individual interpretation.”

The ACLU-KY/FFRF lawsuit argues that Hart’s proposed license plate is fully protected individual speech, which Kentucky DMV officials may not suppress using content-based, viewpoint-based, vague or overboard standards.

“Under the First Amendment, government officials do not have the authority to censor messages simply because they dislike them,” says William Sharp, ACLU-KY Legal Director. “And in this instance, personalized license plates are a form of individual speech equally deserving of First Amendment protection.”

“He has a right to select a personalized plate message that reflects his philosophical views, just as any other driver may select an individual message for their personalized plate,” says FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “Just as others may select religious messages, Mr. Hart, an atheist, has a right to comment on religion.”

By filing the lawsuit ACLU-KY, FFRF and their client are seeking approval of his license plate application, and a finding that certain provisions are invalid to the extent they allow government officials to deny personalized plates solely because they communicate messages about politics or religion.