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Maryland high court upholds ban on vanity plate obscenity

It doesn't matter what language you write it in -- you can't put s--t on your license plate, Maryland's highest court has affirmed.

The Court of Appeals last week upheld the Motor Vehicle Administration's decision in 2011 to rescind a vanity license plate that read, "MIERDA," a Spanish word which can refer to filth, dirt, compost, or the related profanity.

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In an opinion that makes references to comedian George Carlin and the "Seinfeld" TV episode where Cosmo Kramer obtains a license plate that reads, "Assman," retired Judge Glenn T Harrell Jr. writes that the MVA was reasonable and "viewpoint-neutral" to take away the plates.

The MVA maintains a growing list of more than 4,000 letter-and-number combinations that are off-limits. The list includes obscenities, drug references, words that could be misconstrued as belonging to governmental vehicles, and scatological humor.

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The petitioner, John T. Mitchell, obtained an agriculture commemorative plate with the word in 2009. Two years later, the MVA received a complaint and looked up the word on the plate, determining it fit the criteria to be banned.

Mitchell argued that "mierda" has a "variety of non-profane and non-obscene meanings, and that some of which, such as 'compost,' make sense in the context of the agriculture plate template and rural lifestyle, although he conceded it can also mean 's--t,'" Harrell wrote.

The court determined that the characters or message on a vanity license plate represent "private speech in a nonpublic form, which requires government speech restrictions thereof to be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral." They said the MVA's regulation on profanities, epithets and obscenities satisfies that standard.

"Even though a witness to a vanity plate message will discern easily the vehicle owner as the speaker, because the speech takes place on government property and only with State permission, the message will be associated with the State," Harrell wrote. The state has a legitimate interest in not communicating the message that it approves of the public display of such terms, he said.

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Mitchell argued that English translations of non-English words were too imprecise a basis for free speech restrictions, and warned of the risk of "mischievous violence to the First Amendment."

Harrell wrote that he was "mindful that we risk being haunted by the spirit of the late comedian and social commentator George Carlin" and said Mitchell and Kramer had in common that they "both received and displayed on their respective motor vehicles, for a period of time, vanity license plates bearing words that had arguably scatological meanings."

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