Censorship | Protected Speech

California DMV Settles with Owner of “Come on You Whites” License Plate

Jonathan Kotler was represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization focused on defending individuals’ civil liberties. Photo used with permission of Pacific Legal Foundation.

As part of a legal settlement, the California State Department of Motor Vehicles will now allow a resident to display a license plate it initially rejected because it contained “offensive connotations.” 

Jonathan Kotler applied for a plate with the acronym “COYW” which stands for “Come on You Whites,” a slogan used by fans of Fulham Football Club, a London-based soccer team. A department official denied Kotler’s request, citing a California statute prohibiting license plates that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.” 

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Kotler filed a complaint on April 9th, 2019 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California Western Division, arguing that the department official’s decision violated his First Amendment rights. Kotler was represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm that focuses on defending individuals’ civil liberties.

“California’s regulation on personalized license plate configurations that ‘may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency’ impose content-based and viewpoint-based restrictions on speech,” the complaint said. Furthermore, the regulation “forces the Department to make inconsistent and subjective decisions about which license plate configurations” are legally prohibited.

The DMV attempted to have the case dismissed on the grounds that vehicle license plates constitute government speech. U.S. District Judge George Wu, however, rejected the DMV’s motion, writing that it was unlikely “viewers perceive the government as speaking through personalized vanity plates.” 

The Associated Press announced on January 28th, that the DMV and Kotler had reached an out-of-court settlement, and that the department would now approve the license plate.

The Associated Press Complaint