PIERRE, S.D. — NOWAY. DNTHXSO. It's the legislative junkyard for a bill that sought to eliminate vanity license plates in South Dakota.
The state Senate Transportation Committee killed the measure 6-1 yesterday, despite a warning that South Dakota is certain to be sued over offensive messages on personalized license plates at some point.
Debra Hillmer, state Division of Motor Vehicles director, said such a lawsuit would be expensive for the state to defend. Personalized plates bring in about $250,000 in annual revenues, and that would not be enough to defend such a lawsuit, she said.
Pressing for approval of S.B 20, the repeal measure, Hillmer said it had become very difficult to decipher all the terms that motorists want to put on their plates. State law says license plate slogans may not be offensive to "good taste and decency" but the state could face a lawsuit over free speech when it uses those standards to deny personalized plates, she said.
"We have little ground to stand on to deny plates," she told the Senate Transportation Committee.
Legislators said personalized plates are wildly popular with many motorists.
The bill must be killed or legislators will be flooded with opposition from people who have vanity plates, said state Sen. Bill Napoli, R-Rapid City.
"It's going to get ugly," he said.
Although the repeal measure was dumped, legislators said they may consider drafting a bill that would give the DMV more latitude to deny personalized plates that may be offensive, such as specifying that they may not contain vulgarities or racist messages.
Hillmer said many combinations of letters and numbers may be offensive, and the state can be sued by those offended by personalized plates and by those who argue free speech allows them to have the plates of their choice.
"It is not an issue of, if we will be sued," she said. "It is only a matter of when we will be sued.”
Hillmer provided the committee with a federal appeals court decision that said states cannot regulate messages on vanity plates if that regulation violates free speech. Most speech is protected, but not all, Hillmer said.
"Free speech means that I have the right to say on my plates pretty much what I want to," she added. "The state should not be in the position where we have to monitor what meets the test of free speech and what does not."
The special plates were first issued in 1977, she said. Social values have changed a lot since then, she said.
"People did not think about putting foul language on a plate then, let alone say the words because you would have gotten a good lashing from your mother, or even worse, your mouth washed out," Hillmer said.
"Once you open up the avenue for personalized license plates, you open it up for free speech," she said.
The state continues to deny plates deemed to be offensive, but it risks lawsuits in those instances, Hillmer said.
An average of 200 personalized plate applications are received each month, and a half-dozen or so are rejected, she said.
Myren Rau of Sioux Falls, a motorcycle enthusiast, and John Whaley of Fort Pierre, a collector car hobbyist, testified against the bill. They said people who own those types of vehicles like to put special messages on their plates.
Rau acknowledged that some people display messages that are not in good taste.
"My plate is 1-USA. There's nothing offensive about that," Rau said.
"We're throwing everybody into the same basket because of one or two goofy people who try to do something to test free speech," he said.
State Sen. Dan Sutton, D-Flandreau, who voted to kill the bill, said the state should not eliminate personalized plates just because it may get sued. The state can be sued over any law on the books, he said.
"I don't buy suing us an argument to necessarily throwing out the baby with the bath water," Sutton said.