Indiana cop’s ‘0INK’ license plate spurs battle over free speech

(Courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana) (Courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana)

A pig reference on a cop’s license plate request may mean the end of personalized plates in Indiana.

The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles is stepping up its fight against Greenfield Police Officer Rodney Vawter’s license plate request, which reads “OINK.” A local court ruled in May that the state must approve the plate, siding with free speech advocates, but the department announced Monday that it plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

More than a year into the battle over vanity plates, the motor vehicle department’s commissioner, Donald Snemis, said state lawmakers will soon have to step in.

“The legislature is going to have to have a discussion about whether we want to have a personalized license plate system,” Snemis told the Associated Press.

Indiana drivers have been unable to purchase vanity plates – which make the state several million dollars a year – since Vawter filed his lawsuit last July.

State officials said they rejected the plate request because they believed it carried “a connotation offensive to good taste and decency.” But for Vawter, the pig snort is a symbol of pride: “As a police officer who has been called ‘pig’ by arrestees, he thought it was both humorous and also a label that he wears with some degree of pride,” his lawsuit reads.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which joined Vater’s lawsuit, agrees that states have the right to ban plates that are vulgar, defamatory or likely to incite violence. But the controversy has stirred questions over why a plate like “OINK” was rejected while “OINKS” and “OINKER” were both allowed.

Nearly 10 million vehicles across the United States have vanity plates – about 4 percent of all vehicles. Personalized plates are approved or rejected by motor vehicle department officials, some of whom are instructed to consult tools like UrbanDictionary.com when checking for sex and drug references.

Other lively license plate battles:

• Washington state rejected a license plate that read “GOTMILF,” which its owner claimed was not an “American Pie” reference and referred instead to a potentially made-up gizmo called “Manual Inline Lift Fluctuator”

• North Dakota and New Jersey have both faced flak for denying license plates that proclaim godlessness. (Among those rejected: “ATHIEST”/“ATHE1ST”/”8THIEST”)

• Tennessee, Colorado, Florida and Virginia have banned the license plate “ILVTOFU,” enflaming tofu-lovers and PETA-supporters everywhere.

• Ohio has banned plates that hate on Michigan sports teams, including “HATEMI,” “KILBLU” and “UMH8ER.”

• A New Mexico man won the battle to keep his “IB6UB9″ plate, which he insisted was referring to a poker joke and not a sex position.

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Paul Kane · July 8, 2014

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