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ACLU Sues South Dakota Over Vanity Plate Restrictions

Civil rights group has beef with state's initial rejection of man's application for 'REZWEED' plate
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 8, 2023 10:15 AM CST
ACLU Has Beef With S. Dakota's Vanity Plate Restrictions
The South Dakota Capitol in Pierre, South Dakota, is seen Jan. 12, 2021.   (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP, File)

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota announced Monday that it's suing South Dakota over a state law that restricts content on vanity plates. The ACLU said in a press release that it filed the lawsuit on behalf of Lyndon Hart, whose application for a plate that said "REZWEED" was initially denied by the South Dakota Motor Vehicle Division for allegedly being "in poor taste." As the AP reports, Hart runs a business called Rez Weed Indeed, which he uses to support the legal selling and use of marijuana on Native American reservations. Hart intended for the personalized license plate to refer to his business and its mission of promoting tribal sovereignty, the news release said. According to the complaint filed Friday, the state Department of Revenue denied Hart's application in 2022.

Under state law, the department has the authority to "refuse to issue any letter combination which carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency." The department later reversed its decision without explanation and granted Hart the REZWEED plate. But Hart's free speech rights are still at risk because state law allows the department to recall the plates at any time if they're believed to have been issued in error, the complaint says. The department used its authority to recall at least three personalized plates in 2022, the lawsuit says. It names both the state's Department of Revenue and the state's Motor Vehicle Division. Kendra Baucom, a rep for both entities, declined to comment Monday on the lawsuit or on the state's policy.

The ACLU said the Motor Vehicle Division has rejected hundreds of plate requests in recent years for allegedly carrying "connotations offensive to good taste and decency." The state's standard is "overly broad, vague, and subjective," the ACLU says, and it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the rights of free speech and due process. The ACLU added that the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that license plates are a legitimate place for personal and political expression, and courts throughout the country have struck down similar laws. In January, North Carolina decided to allow more LGBTQ+ phrases on vanity plates. The state's DMV approved more than 200 phrases that were previously blocked, including "GAYPRIDE," "LESBIAN," and "QUEER." Other states—including Delaware, Oklahoma, and Georgia—have been sued over their restrictions in recent years.

(More ACLU stories.)

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