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Editorial: Transparent guidelines needed for vanity plates

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We see vanity license plates regularly. Some are funny or thought-provoking. Others are just plain puzzling.

One specialty plate backing autism research and support carries the heartfelt message “4MYSON.” Others are more prosaic, as in “COLTFANZ.”

It’s clear motorists like them.

But a dust-up over a police officer’s vanity plate has grown into a constitutional debate that could lead to the Indiana General Assembly deciding whether to rewrite the law or stop selling personalized license plates altogether.

The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles has filed a notice of appeal, asking the state Supreme Court to overrule a local judge who said the agency violated the officer’s freedom of speech when it revoked his license plate that read “0INK.”

Drivers haven’t been able to buy vanity plates in Indiana since last July, when Greenfield Police Officer Rodney Vawter sued the BMV, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The agency’s website offers guidance on how to apply for personalized license plates but warns that it is not currently accepting applications.

BMV Commissioner Donald M. Snemis told The Associated Press that if the Indiana Supreme Court agrees to take up the issue, it may direct lawmakers to rewrite the law. This could lead to the removal of the right to have vanity plates for all Indiana drivers.

In his ruling, Judge James Osborn said the BMV has no formal regulations in place for evaluating the content of vanity plates and ordered it to create standards that meet constitutional requirements within six months. He said the agency was inconsistent when approving plates based on content. For example, the agency revoked an “UNHOLY” vanity plate but allowed vanity plates such as “B HOLY” and “HOLYONE.”

Osborn ordered the agency to restore the program under strict guidelines until it could write new rules that don’t violate freedom of speech.

The BMV argues the ruling rewrote the rules and would force it to allow offensive plates that might insult ethnic groups. But the ACLU contends in legal documents the BMV is still allowed to deny plates that are defamatory, vulgar or could incite violence.

It’s hard to understand how one license plate has risen to the level of a court case. After all, if a Bartholomew County hog farmer had a plate with “OINK” on it, it would be entirely appropriate.

It would be a shame to abolish a popular program just because the BMV has been inconsistent about what to approve and deny.

Clearly, offensive references and profanity, however cleverly presented, have no place on the roads. But simple messages of joy, support, heritage or whimsy should be allowed.

Transparent guidelines about plate messages and evenhanded enforcement of those rules would resolve this issue.

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