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N.H. man fights denial of ‘COPSLIE’ vanity plate

CONCORD, N.H. — A New Hampshire man told the state’s highest court Thursday that denying him a vanity license plate that reads ‘‘COPSLIE’’ violates his political free speech rights.

David Montenegro of Farmington, said he wanted the plate because he feels it highlights government corruption.

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Lawyers for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, who joined the case, said the current regulation is unconstitutionally vague and gives too much discretion to a person behind a counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The policy prohibits vanity plates that “a reasonable person would find offensive to good taste.”

“So if a person at DMV agrees with the sentiment, he gets the plate?’’ Chief Justice Linda Dalianis asked during a spirited half-hour of arguments.

“What is good taste?” Justice Carol Ann Conboy asked. “That seems to be the nub of the argument.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Richard Head argued that state workers were right to deny Montenegro the plate in 2010, because the phrase disparages an entire class of people, police officers.

“I don’t deny you might get two different decisions from two different people,” Head said in response to a question about whether a plate reading “COPS R GR8” would be approved.

‘What is good taste? That seems to be the nub of the argument.’

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Anthony Galdieri, an attorney representing the civil liberties union, argued that an accusation is nothing more than viewpoint.

Justice Gary Hicks questioned how the court could restrict someone’s ability to have an opinion. Head replied that Montenegro’s plate preference was an allegation, not an opinion.

Gilles Bissonnette, another NHCLU attorney, said ‘‘COPSLIE” is political speech that is being regulated and suppressed by the government.

“There’s no way to objectively enforce this regulation,” said Bissonnette.

Montenegro, who last year legally changed his name to ‘‘human,” said he thought that police officers who might pull him over and have to type ‘‘COPSLIE” into their computers would amount to ‘‘the perfect situational irony.’’

He said he was confident the court would invalidate the good-taste provision, despite opening his argument by telling the justices that the only reason the case had reached their level was because of a corrupt judiciary. He also acknowledged that he had been arrested twice, but would not say what the charges were.

The justices did not indicate when they would rule.

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