Indiana's highest court ruled Friday that state officials had the right to deny a police officer an "offensive" vanity license plate that said "0INK."
The unanimous Indiana Supreme Court decision found that messages on state-issued license plates amount to government speech, not constitutionally protected personal speech. It cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that found Texas hadn't violated free speech rights by refusing to issue specialty license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag.
The Constitution's free speech clause "restricts government regulation of private speech" but it "does not regulate government," Justice Brent E. Dickson wrote.
Thus, the state has an ability to deny plate requests found to be misleading, violent, in poor taste or that use profanity.
Plus, Dickson added, a vehicle owner could use "bumper stickers, window decals, or similar private methods to display personal messages far more prominently and cost effectively."
American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana attorney Ken Falk, who represented Greenfield police Officer Rodney Vawter, said he was "obviously disappointed" by the outcome.
Vawter sued the state in 2013 after the "0INK" plate, meant to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to his job, was revoked. The ACLU argued the BMV arbitrarily objected to some plates while allowing others.
Phrases such as "BLK JEW," ''HATE," ''FOXY GMA" and "UNHOLY" — a reference to a song by the rock group KISS — all had previously been allowed by the BMV, they argued.
A Marion County judge initially ruled in Vawter's favor, which prompted the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles to suspend Indiana's personalized license plate program.
The state supreme court said Friday that license plates primarily serve as a government owned and issued IDs. But the justices also found that plates have long been a way for government to communicate. Indiana plates have featured the slogan "''HOOSIER HOSPITALITY" while other states have included iconic images like Idaho potatoes, Georgia peaches and Florida grapefruits.
Falk said the ruling could have unintended consequences because all Indiana license plate messages now amount government speech.
"Every religious plate that someone has crafted with Bible quotations? Those are all government speech now and violate the establishment clause" of the Constitution, said Falk, who had 90 days to file an appeal.
Falk also differentiated Vawter's plate from the Confederate battle flag logo at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case. Vawter's plate was a personal message, not a mass produced specialty plate.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office argued the state's case, praised the ruling. The court is "striking a careful balance that allows Indiana to have a personalized plate program motorists can utilize while recognizing BMV's authority to deny applications for offensive plate messages," Zoeller said in a statement.
But a spokesman for the BMV could not say if the personalized license plate program will resume.
"BMV staff is currently evaluating specifics of the ruling and will have more information about how the program will move forward as soon as possible," spokesman Josh Gillespie said.