Opening Statements

A Personalized Issue: 1st Amendment Lawyer Fights for His Right to a Vanity Plate

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The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration sure picked the wrong guy to tangle with when trying to revoke a vanity license plate.

Three years ago, Accokeek, Md., lawyer John Mitchell received his request for a vanity license plate. Mitchell’s choice of the Spanish mierda, or shit, for his tags was a little unconventional to some. He says he selected the word in part because he thought it meshed well with the state-sanctioned plate slogan “Support our farms, our future.” Mierda, he explains, is a form of compost.

Mitchell’s vanity plate caused no problems for the more than two years he had them. “Occasionally a perfect stranger would give me a thumbs-up sign, but that was it,” Mitchell says.

But late last year, Maryland’s MVA wrote Mitchell, telling him that it issued the plate in error. The letter noted that “any combination of letters and/or numbers which contains profanities, epithets or obscenities shall not be acceptable.”

Mitchell wasn’t surprised to receive the letter from the Maryland officials. He says he was more surprised when he initially received the license plate in 2009.

Mitchell wrote a three-page letter this past January, explaining that he had a First Amendment right to his vanity plate. Mitchell knows what he is talking about, having practiced First Amendment law for years in Washington, D.C.

“I do not dispute Maryland’s right to not issue any personalized tags, but once personalized tags are permitted, my First Amendment right to use the combination of letters of my choice to express a message or viewpoint is superior to the MVA’s freedom to selectively suppress speech it does not like,” he concluded in his letter.

An administrative hearing on the matter was held in April. At press time, no decision had been made. But, Mitchell says, if he does not prevail, he likely will file a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court.

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