Vanity license plate rejected by California DMV gets second chance after court ruling

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Vanity plates in California may soon start to look a bit more creative. A U.S. District Court ruling has struck down a California DMV standard that allowed the department to reject applications with words or symbols that some might find offensive.

It started with Amrit Kohli, an Oakland man who applied for a California vanity license plate displaying a single word: "QUEER."

"As someone who identifies as queer, it's something I hold dear to my heart and really believe in," said Kohli.

"Now at this time in not only history, but in my life, to reclaim that word and make it part of our community and a positive part of our community is really empowering for us," explained Kohli, who owns an art and music collective called "queer folk."

But last year, the DMV rejected Kohli's application, on the grounds that the word might be considered "insulting, degrading or expressing contempt for a group or person." Now, a U.S. district court judge has overturned that DMV standard.

"The department has four full-time reviewers. Their only job is to review these license plates to see if they're offensive," said attorney Wen Fa with Pacific Legal Services, the firm that represented Kohli and four other plaintiffs. "They consult sources like Urban Dictionary, Google Translate and Reddit and I think we've shown in this case that they reach inconsistent, subjective and arbitrary results."

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Jon Tigar ruled personalized messages are not "government speech" and "must be both viewpoint-neutral and reasonable."
As part of their case, the plaintiffs used as evidence other vanity plates the DMV had rejected.

They include: "ZIN RED" due to possible gang association, "GRDEAD" as in the Grateful Dead, and KNYFPLZ -- a request made by a surgeon.

ABC7 News' requested data from the DMV on all the license plates they've rejected this year -- and there are thousands.

Another few examples of license plates that didn't make the cut:

  • CANBIZ, rejected because of a drug reference

  • INURFACE and MEANN2U, both rejected for being "threatening, aggressive, or hostile"

  • THGLIFE, rejected for its "gang affiliation"

  • CATKILA, also too aggressive for DMV standards

  • COVID19, and several other coronavirus-related plates were rejected because puzzlingly it "looks or sounds like a swear word, or represents a term or phrase that may be considered profane or obscene."

Now that the court has ruled in his favor, Kohli plans to reapply to the DMV for that personalized plate that is so personal to him.

"I really hope that I get that soon. I'd like to put it on my car," said Kohli.

A spokesperson told ABC7 News the DMV is still reviewing the court's ruling, which does still allow the department to reject vanity plates that are clearly profane.
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