One might be inclined to think that the ACLU’s lawsuit against the state for denying vanity license plates on the basis of “poor taste” is a frittering at the fringes of South Dakota’s real problems of cultural oppression and economic malaise. I mean, really, with women denied reproductive autonomy, Indians excluded from economic opportunity, and babies dying at the second-highest rate in the nation, is fighting for a right to put “GOTPSSY” or “FJB” on one’s license plate really the best use of the ACLU’s resources?
But the lawsuit’s political significance lies in its challenge against “viewpoint discrimination“:
The lawsuit follows a letter from the ACLU to Houdyshell and Attorney General Marty Jackley in late August that demanded a reevaluation of denied vanity plates and challenged the constitutionality of the law and accompanying policy guidance that allow the state to issue denials for plates dubbed “offensive to good taste and decency.”
The letter pointed to 2,135 denied plates and claimed that about 32% had been denied based on what the organization characterized as “viewpoint discrimination.”
…[Flandreau activist Lynn] Hart’s current business, the lawsuit says, is “Rez Weed Indeed,” which “supports and promotes the legal selling and use of Medical and Recreational Marijuana on all Federally recognized Indian reservations.”
He applied for a “REZWEED” license plate in May of 2022 to “to raise awareness of his business and its message of Tribal Sovereignty,” but was denied a plate. Months later, in September, the lawsuit says, a separate DMV employee reviewed his plate application and approved the plate.
Because state law and policy allow for the state to recall plates issued “in error,” the ACLU argues, Hart’s constitutional rights – and those of others who’ve been denied or had their plates recalled – have been violated by the state [John Hult, “ACLU Sues State Over ‘REZWEED’ Vanity License Plates,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2023.11.06].
The vanity license plate in question wasn’t dirty, racist, or violent; it simply promoted two things the one-party regime in Pierre doesn’t like: Indians and marijuana. If the state is going to allow people to express themselves on license plates, the state doesn’t get to pick and choose which political statements vanity-plate buyers may make.
Given the hypersensitivity of the one-party regime to opposition messages, it may well decide giving up $25 per vanity plate is a small price to pay for ridding itself of such messages under the imprimatur of official state license plates.