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Sep 13 2013

Suit Filed Over ‘Infidel’ License Plate

There was a mini-uproar recently when New Jersey refused to issue Dave Silverman a license plate that said “ATHEIST.” We’ve now got a similar situation in Michigan, but the state isn’t backing down from its refusal to issue a plate that said “INFIDEL” and the ACLU has filed a lawsuit. The press release:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a U.S. Army veteran whose attempts to acquire a personalized license plate that includes a variation of the word “infidel” were unconstitutionally rejected by the Secretary of State for being “offensive to good taste and decency.”

“A message on a vanity license plate may be brief, but that doesn’t mean there are fewer constitutional protections,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “The ‘good taste and decency’ standard can be interpreted at the whim of officials in charge at any given moment and therefore it’s anybody’s guess what message will survive the review process. This subjectivity is exactly what our First Amendment was designed to guard against.”

Michael Matwyuk, who lives in the Upper Peninsula, is a retired U.S. Army sergeant who was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005 at the height of hostilities in that country. He and his fellow troops were constantly under attack by insurgents who called American soldiers “infidels.” Sgt. Matwyuk and other soldiers came to embrace their identity as “infidels” and proudly refer to themselves as “infidels” as a reminder of the bond they share. Many soldiers have expressed this identity through tattoos, patches and clothing that bear the word.

In late 2012, Sgt. Matwyuk hoped to join others in expressing his identity as an Army veteran who served in Iraq by acquiring a personalized license plate through the Secretary of State’s website. He selected the Iraq War Veteran service plate and typed in several variations of the word “infidel” to check the plate’s availability. He was told that his first selection, “INFIDL,” was not available. He then typed in “INF1DL” and his order was accepted. However, he was later informed that his license could not be issued because it might carry a connotation offensive to good taste or decency in violation of the Motor Vehicle Code.

“As American soldiers in Iraq, we were called ‘infidels’ on a daily basis. As a way to cope, we decided to take this word, meant to hurt and demean us, as our own,” said Sgt. Matwyuk. “It’s a point of pride and patriotism that many of us identify with, just as we would identify with the word ‘soldier.’ This license plate is simply an expression of my service as an Iraqi combat veteran.”

In its lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, the ACLU argues that the state statute governing personalized license plates is unconstitutionally overbroad, vague and content-based, meaning it allows some words, but denies others based solely on their message.

“The state is essentially telling residents you have a platform to express your identity, religion, sense of humor or political ideology, unless we don’t like it,” continued Korobkin. “That is clearly unfair and unconstitutional.”

In addition to Korobkin, Sgt. Matwyuk is represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director.

To read the ACLU’s complaint, go to: http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/ACLU_InfidelComplaint_9-2013.pdf

Of course, the reason for wanting the plate is irrelevant. Being a veteran gives the plaintiff’s constitutional claim no more added validity at all. I’m sure they’ll win the suit.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    cry4turtles

    I’ve often of applying for a PA plate with “nudist” on it just to see how many men would pass me straining their necks.

  2. 2
    cry4turtles

    I meant “thought of”. Geez

  3. 3
    some bastard on the internet

    I’ve occasionally entertained the thought of getting a plate that says ‘H34TH3N’ on it just to see the looks on all the faces of those I used to go to church with.

    Of course, that would require that I get myself a car first. Details, details…

  4. 4
    kyoseki

    I’ll just leave this here :)

    http://i.imgur.com/HjfzXEp.jpg

  5. 5
    zero6ix

    That plate wins all the prizes. ALL OF THEM.

  6. 6
    JustaTech

    The range of things that various state DMVs decide are “offensive” is kind of amazing. My MIL was denyed “RUBBERS” in California because it was “offensive”. It’s also the name of her dog.

  7. 7
    Gretchen

    Being a veteran gives the plaintiff’s constitutional claim no more added validity at all.

    Not to you and me….but to plenty of people out there who will with open arms and loving caresses welcome the idea of “reclaiming” the word infidel when it was used by Muslims to shame American soldiers, but make no connection between that and doing so when we’re talking about American atheists, it surely will.

  8. 8
    Modusoperandi

    JustaTech “My MIL was denyed ‘RUBBERS’ in California because it was “offensive”. It’s also the name of her dog.”
    To be fair, her dog is pretty offensive.

  9. 9
    caseloweraz

    Someone with lots of time to kill can spend a good bit of it googling on the topic of rejected plates (or tags).

    The first thing I turned up is a database maintained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of license plates rejected by the Georgia Department of Revenue. It has over 10,000 entries (and it is slow.)

    The page links to an 11 January 2013 story about the Department’s choices. There’s also a quiz in which you try to spot the banned plate. Sure enough, “ATHEIST”, “INFIDEL” and “INF1DEL” are banned. So are “BIBLE”, “BGODLY”, AND “GODSIT”, among others with religIous themes. But “BELIEVE”, “HOLY”, and “FAITH” are apparently OK.

    As the story notes, there’s no consistency. “GOD4EVR” passed, while “GODROKS” was rejected. “GUNLUV” was okay; “ILUVGUNS” was not. (But that last is 8 letters; it may simply be too long. I searched the database; “HOLYHEL” and “ILVGUNS” are either OK or no one applied for them.)

    A few others rejected: AHEAD; MCDEAL; IMFAIT. More timely is the article’s comment: “ENGLAND, GERMAN, SAUDIA and SYRIA? Not offensive. IRAQ and IRAN2? Offensive.”

  10. 10
    whheydt

    I’ve long thought that if I ever owned a Mitsubishi, I’d try to get a plate that was some coherent variant of “A6M Navy Type O”. (Yeah…that’s right…Mitsubishi manufactured the Zero.)

  11. 11
    Ichthyic

    Mitsubishi manufactured the Zero

    I remember finding it ironic when Bavarian Motor Works obtained majority ownership of Rolls Royce.

    it was somehow like they ended up winning the Battle of Britain after all…

  12. 12
    Michael Heath

    For some unknown reason I’ve always favored heathen as a way to describe my own lack of religiosity.

  13. 13
    aluchko

    I have some sympathy for the DMV if it is their policy to avoid any license plates that could be deemed to have an offensive intent. The soldiers might have embraced the term infidel as an identity just like they could have embraced bastard if that was the insult, but that doesn’t make it an identity term in general. Infidel is an insult used by one specific group, so an infidel license plate is a non-positive message directed at that group.

    I’d say ‘BGODLY’ is a valid reject under those terms, along with H34TH3N :( Though ATHEIST would be fine.

  14. 14
    John Phillips, FCD

    Ichthyic, it’s OK they only got the cars (Rolls Royce Motors), the Aero-engine division (now Rolls Royce Group Plc) is still Brit. The two were split to enable the selling off of the car side in 73 leaving the still nationalised aero engine division to concentrate on jet development and it was privatised in 87. Though between 1990 and 2000 RR and BMW established a company to develop a range of smaller jet engines but BMW pulled out in 2000. I only know a lot of this because one of my uncles worked his way up to a fairly senior position in their jet division at Derby before he retired and loved talking about RR whenever we met. One of my favourite uncles and one of the major influences on my love of engineering, but sadly he’s now dead.

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