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‘IM GOD’ Kentucky license plate case moves forward

Ben Hart shows off his “IM GOD” license plate he had while living in Ohio. Now in Kentucky, Hart is suing because he was turned down for that plate by the DMV.

A federal lawsuit in Kentucky over the denial of an irreverent license plate has been given the green light by the presiding judge.

FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed a lawsuit in November 2016 on behalf of a Kentucky man denied a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on March 31 rejected the state’s argument that the Kentucky transportation secretary is immune from a lawsuit and that the case should be dismissed because personalized plate messages are “government speech.”

In briefing the court, the plaintiff’s attorneys contended, “For more than one hundred years, it has been clearly established that plaintiffs may bring official-capacity claims against state officials to enjoin those officials from committing future violations of individuals’ federally protected rights, such as the claims asserted in this case.” Van Tatenhove agreed.

Kentucky Division of Motor Vehicle (DMV) officials, who have approved religious personalized plates, first refused Ben Hart’s request in early 2016, calling his license plate message “obscene or vulgar.” Later, the state said the plate was rejected because it was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, specifically denial of plates based on vague notions of “good taste.” It also contests viewpoint or content-based restrictions on personalized plates that communicate religious, anti-religious or political messages.

Hart had the same personalized license plate issued by the state of Ohio for 12 years prior to moving to the commonwealth.

The ACLU-KY/FFRF lawsuit argues that Hart’s proposed license plate is fully protected individual speech, which Kentucky DMV officials may not suppress using content-based, viewpoint-based, vague or overboard standards.