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Gay man wins legal challenge to use ‘QUEER’ license plate after being told it’s too ‘degrading’

Nick Duffy November 29, 2020
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The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) lost the legal battle

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) lost the legal battle (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A gay man in California has won a legal challenge over his right to use the car license plate QUEER, after officials argued it should be banned because it may cause offence.

Computer engineer, folk musician and record producer Amrit Kohli, the owner of music label Queer Folk Records, had applied for the unusual personalised license plate.

Despite the plate reflecting both his sexuality and the name of his trademarked business, it was rejected by the California Department of Motor Vehicles on the grounds that it “may be considered insulting, degrading, or expressing contempt for a specific group or person.”

After a legal challenge, US district judge Jon Tigar of San Francisco held in a ruling on Tuesday (24 November) that the license plate rules infringe upon constitutionally-protected free speech.

The judge wrote: “California’s prohibition on personalized license plate configurations ‘that may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency’ constitutes viewpoint discrimination.

“Kohli, who identifies as gay and established Queer Folk Records and the music label Queer Folk – which is trademarked by the United States Patent and Trademark Office – describes his ‘effort to reclaim the word queer… to drain its denigrating force’.

“The DMV’s determination that QUEER ‘may be considered insulting, degrading or expressing contempt for a specific group or person,’ and thus ‘may be considered offensive’ reflects both the assessment of a viewpoint – an assessment that may or may not be correct, depending on the context – and the regulation’s effect of disfavouring ideas that offend.”

A gay man took on the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) over the QUEER license plate
A gay man took on the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) over the QUEER license plate (David McNew/Getty Images)

QUEER is not the only license plate California rejected.

Kohli’s challenge was brought alongside several others challenging license plate denials.

They include military veteran Paul Ogilvie, who was denied the license plate OGWOOLF reflecting “his military nickname, OG, and his longtime interest in wolves” because it was deemed to be gang-related.

Likewise a fan of the band Slayer was denied the license plate SLAAYRR, while Ducati motorcycle fanatic Andrea Campanile was denied DUK N A on obscenity grounds.

The ruling draws on a 2017 Supreme Court decision in the case of Asian-American rock band The Slants, who were initially refused registration of their trademark on the grounds that “slants” is widely considered a racial slur.

Attorney Wen Fa of the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation said: “This is a great day for our clients and the 250,000 Californians that seek to express their messages on personalized license plates each year.

“Vague bans on offensive speech allow bureaucrats to inject their subjective preferences and undermine the rule of law.”

The DMV said it would review the ruling.

Related topics: California, Department of Motor Vehicles, Queer

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