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What is the difference between a vanity plate and a specialty license plate?

A vanity plate refers to a license plate with a unique message requested by a particular individual. Vanity plates differ from individual to individual. Specialty plates, on the other hand, refer to plates requested by an organization that can then be purchased by individuals. Many states have organizational schemes established for specialty license plates. They refer to various environmental, political, social and other causes. In many states, specific laws must be passed before a specialty license plate can be issued.

For First Amendment purposes are license plates private speech or government speech?

Good question. Government officials argue that license plates are government speech since they issue the plates. They argue this because under the government speech doctrine, the government can selectively choose its own speech and messages. However, if the speech is classified as private speech, then the government generally may not restrict speech based on the viewpoint expressed on the plate. Many courts and commentators have tended to reach the legal conclusion that license plates are more properly analyzed as private, not government, speech. However, the question has not been settled definitively.

Can the government prohibit racially insensitive license plates?

The answer is less than clear. The government certainly has an obligation and a legal duty not to discriminate against persons based on race. But if a plate is truly private speech, the question becomes whether the state can prevent an individual from requesting a racially insensitive message. One federal appeals court ruled that the state of Missouri violated the First Amendment when it refused to issue the vanity plate “ARYAN-1.” According to the court, the state’s department of motor vehicles “may not censor a license plate because its message might make people angry.” Likewise, a few courts have determined that a state may not prohibit Confederate flag logos when it allows other specialty license plates to contain logos. However, a state could advance a compelling interest in prohibiting the issuance of license plates that contain explicit racial slurs.

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