The emissions from Sean Carroll’s new Tesla are clean but the expression on his license plate is filthy — at least according to the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles.
The statement Mr. Carroll made with his tag — “FKGAS” — is at the center of a First Amendment fight in federal court.
It is the latest skirmish in decades of free speech struggles between Americans and DMVs across the country, which have included battles over “QUEER” vanity plates and Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty plates.
The climate change activist’s legal battle against censorship started after Mr. Carroll received a vanity plate for his electric car in August. He said he wanted to spread a political message about being environmentally conscious.
Last month, Rhode Island DMV Administrator Walter Craddock notified Mr. Carroll that the department received a complaint and that the state deemed the plate offensive. He instructed Mr. Carroll to turn in the plate or else have his car registration revoked.
“‘FKGAS’ is my personal statement challenging everyone to look at the world differently. Gas isn’t the only option when it comes to powering your vehicle,” Mr. Carroll said. “My choice for a vanity plate has already brought more attention to alternative fuel sources and electric vehicles.”
The state law allows the DMV to deny a plate that offends “good taste and decency,” but Mr. Carroll’s lawsuit argues that the state applies its standard arbitrarily.
His complaint says Rhode Island allows “FATTY” but not “CHUBBY,” “DRUNK” but not “TIPSY,” “SLOB” but not “NEAT,” and “REDNECK” but not “REDNEK,” “REDNK” or “EDNEC.”
A spokesperson from the Rhode Island attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
Mr. Carroll also insists his vanity plate isn’t dirty. He said that when he explained to his young daughter that the Tesla is an electronic vehicle charged by the solar panels, she responded by saying it was like “fake gas,” according to court papers.
That was part of the inspiration for “FKGAS,” Mr. Carroll’s complaint suggested.
He is not alone in the license plate wars. A group of drivers has launched a similar offensive in California.
Five residents sued this month claiming they were being censored after the California DMV decided “OG” and “Queer” were too extreme.
The Pacific Legal Foundation brought a case on behalf of the residents in the Northern District of California. It is the second legal battle the advocacy group has begun since last April to strike down the DMV standard.
Chris Ogilvie hoped to combine his military nickname, “OG,” with his love for wolves in a custom plate, “OGWOOLF,” but the California DMV rejected his application after finding that “OG” stood for “original gangster.”
The DMV also rejected Amrit Kohli’s request for a “QUEER” vanity plate, which Mr. Kohli says celebrates his work as a gay musician with the record label Queer Folk.
Pacific Legal Group, which is representing the California drivers, filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of Jon Kotler, a University of Southern California professor who sought the plate “COYW,” which stood for “Come on You Whites” in reference to a soccer team that wears white jerseys. His request was initially rejected.
The California DMV settled the “COYW” dispute earlier this year. Mr. Kotler was able to get his plate, but the law remains on the books.
The legal group points to a Supreme Court case it brought and won in 2018 challenging arbitrary censorship of dress codes at political polling places after a Minnesotan was denied access to voting for five hours while wearing a T-shirt that read “Don’t tread on me.”
The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, struck down Minnesota’s law prohibiting political insignia at polling sites on Election Day. The court said the law infringed on free speech rights.
On license plates, though, the justices have sided with the state.
The Supreme Court settled a Texas dispute in 2015 when the Sons of Confederate Veterans moved to have specialty license plates displaying the group’s logo with the Confederate flag. The state rejected the application, and the high court, in a 5-4 move, affirmed the state’s ability to do so.
The justices ruled that the denial isn’t viewpoint discrimination because a state’s specialty license plate is a form of government speech.
However, that ruling applied to a specialty plate, not a personalized vanity plate such as Mr. Carroll’s “FKGAS” tags.
The specialty plates are mass-produced by states with a slogan or insignia of a specific group. Massachusetts offers specialty plates with Boston Red Sox, Firefighters Memorial, and disabled veterans logos.
Specialty and vanity plates are moneymakers for states, but they also cause headaches.
Other battles over Sons of Confederate Veterans plates have lingered in various states despite the high court ruling. In Virginia, the governor has been phasing out the license plates since 2015.
The high court ruling in the Texas dispute affected “Choose Life” license plates too. It permitted each state to decide whether to issue plates with abortion-related messaging. About 32 states offer the specialty “Choose Life” tags.
Frustration over Rhode Island’s standard for vanity plates has been brewing for years. ACLU lawyers began searching in 2018 for a client to challenge the state law, the Providence Journal reported.
The advocacy group found Mr. Carroll, who argues that Rhode Island’s move is arbitrary and gives the DMV commissioner unchecked authority, which in turn allows for subjective issuance and canceling of plates.
“The DMV twice issued the license plate ‘FKGAS’ to Mr. Carroll and he drove his Tesla for over 5 months with that plate on it making his political statement. No one complained. Now, after one unknown person complained for some unknown reason, the Defendant has decided the plate is ‘inappropriate and/or offensive.’ This looks like political censorship,” said Thomas W. Lyons, a lawyer representing Mr. Carroll.
• Alex Swoyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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