In the beginning there was the bumper sticker and next the vanity license plate, six or seven letters carrying a simple, if provocative, personal message like this one: "ALL 4 MEE." The plate sits in a large Fairfax parking lot teeming with vanity plates on this morning. There are unabashed expressions of love, egotism and murky resentments here--"N 4 EVER," "EYE M HOT," "4 SPITE."
But in the evolution of the message and messengers, vanity plates are passe and plebeian these days. The new rage is toward something even more exclusive: a plate created by the state and named after your favorite social or political group, as in the official Virginia National Rifle Association plate, or the Virginia AFL-CIO plate, something you can turn into your own rolling platform and advertisement.
Virginia and Maryland are among the leaders in embracing this special-plate system and are making a handsome profit from the extra fees the plates carry. Virginia has issued 150 special-plate designs. Maryland has more than 500.
Yet not every group can get the plate it wants from the state legislature, or any plate at all--which is why Virginia now finds itself going to court with a headache.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, after being granted a license plate that bears its name but not its logo, filed suit in federal court in July, alleging "viewpoint discrimination" by the General Assembly. Virginia lawmakers had deemed the logo's Confederate battle flag too divisive.
That and several other recently proposed plates have become lightning rods for conflict over social values and political turf. And some Virginia legislators are expressing weariness over the controversies, as well as over what they view as "frivolous" special plates such as the one honoring Collectors of Pig Memorabilia, an idea that passed the House this year but died in the Senate.
"We have more important things to do than have our time consumed by license plates and the problems raised by the more [controversial] plates," said state Sen. Emily Couric (D-Charlottesville). "My own little personal protest is not to vote for any more special plates. I think we need to ask ourselves how we got into this problem. How could license plates have become such a big issue?"
The process looked so benign once. Virginia issued its first specialty plate back in 1976, a plate commemorating the country's bicentennial celebrations. Then the Shriners and Lions received special plates, and then bowlers and CPAs and everyone from arts aficionados to anyone proud of the state's tobacco heritage. In time, one in every five Virginia vehicles would have one.
In 1995, the General Assembly took over the power to approve the special plates from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. If the legislature said yes to a particular plate, and the plate's supporters could deliver 350 prepaid applications, the DMV would manufacture it.
The plates typically cost an extra $10 to $25 a year, and Virginia's special-plate revenue rose from $2.6 million in 1996 to $3.7 million in 1998. Virtually everyone was happy with the profits and publicity--the DMV, state legislators who could get license plates for constituents, and organizations such as colleges and environmental groups that got "revenue-sharing plates" and received a portion of the DMV sales.
But when it started creating license plates for groups with a political identification, such as the NRA and the AFL-CIO, the legislature unwittingly took an irreversible step toward making the plates a mode of protected speech, according to several legal scholars.
As a result, they say, Virginia is unlikely to prevail in the lawsuit filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has won similar suits in Maryland and North Carolina. Worse for Virginia, say the experts, the suit could be a harbinger of more legal challenges.
David Botkins, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office, said that the state will counter the Confederate group's lawsuit by arguing that the special plates "do not amount to public speech."
But some First Amendment scholars are skeptical. "The state is in trouble," said Vincent Blasi, law professor at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. "The legal test is usually whether a state has created a public forum for political speech. . . . The state has probably gone too far in allowing this sort of thing to say it can restrict it for one group now."
Maryland has complied quickly since losing its lawsuit, already having issued 192 Confederate plates festooned with the battle flag, according to Maryland DMV spokesman Richard Scher.
The special plates are even bigger business in Maryland, which brought in more than $6 million from the plate sales last year. But Virginia has gone further than Maryland in approving potent social-political symbols such as the NRA plate and is thus more vulnerable to further litigation, legal analysts say. There is no equivalent array of special plates in the District.
Virginia state Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), who failed this year to win General Assembly approval for a license plate that would simply read "Choose Life," said he and his antiabortion allies will try again in the next legislative session, arguing that their message deserves as much respect as those approved earlier.
"There are dozens of specialty plates with explicit and implicit messages," Black said. "The AFL-CIO plate has an implicit message in support of labor. People say to me, 'Your message is divisive.' But a free exchange of ideas necessarily involves some division. You can't have it both ways."
The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that any adoption of a Choose Life plate would prompt its own call for a plate in support of abortion rights. The tit for tat has left some lawmakers wondering if the Friends of the Public Schools plate they approved this year presages the introduction of a private-school plate. Would a stern anti-drug message cause a group calling itself Friends Of Medicinal Marijuana to push for a plate?
"I wouldn't be surprised to see a moratorium on the granting of new plates," said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), who fought for the plate with the Confederate group's logo. "People agree it's out of hand."
Some legal observers, including Virginia ACLU Director Kent Willis, have suggested that the legislature return the power to approve the plates to the DMV, with instructions that only plates devoid of political content be permitted.
But DMV officials, pleased with profits from the program, insist they do not want control. "We see no problem with what the legislature has done," said DMV spokeswoman Pam Goheen. "You don't want to take this out of the people's hands. People like their plates."
It is an allusion to the difficulty that bureaucrats could encounter in denying the plates to motorists who have come to view them as symbols of their identity. Jon Amsden, a 24-year-old Clifton bartender whose vehicle sports a license plate honoring bowlers, said he already knows what will happen in the battle over the plates.
"It's kind of past the time they can do anything," he said, proudly adding that he bowls for a 196 average in his league. "We like these plates too much. They're one of a kind, you know? It's a way of saying who I am. They can't take that away from us now. Just wouldn't be fair. It's the way you stand out. I even have my nickname on mine: 'SilyJn.' "
Here are some of the messages and organization names that the Virginia General Assembly has approved for display on license plates in recent years, as well as examples of messages and names that were rejected or that died in a legislative committee.
"I'm Animal Friendly"
"Harley Davidson Owners"
"The National Rifle Association"
"Omega Psi Phi Fraternity"
"Pearl Harbor Survivor"
"Supporters of Public Schools"
"Collectors of Pig Memorabilia"
"Bass Angler Sportsmen Society"
The logo for the Sons of Confederate Veterans