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Judge: State ban on ‘offensive’ license plates is unconstitutional

The Tesla driver with the controversial “FKGAS” plate will be able to keep it.

The main offices of the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles in Cranston, R.I.
The main offices of the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles in Cranston, R.I.Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles

PROVIDENCE — A Rhode Island law allowing the Division of Motor Vehicles to reject vanity license plates that are “offensive” is now being declared as unconstitutional by US District Court Judge Mary McElroy.

Her consent judgment, which was filed on Friday, was entered in a lawsuit filed last March challenging the constitutionality of the law, which gives the administrator of the DMV the authority to deny vanity license plates based on whether they think it might carry “connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”

The suit was filed against Walter Craddock, the state’s DMV administrator, by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island on behalf of Sean Carroll, a Tesla owner who wanted a plate that read “FKGAS.” Carroll, who calls himself an environmentally conscious citizen, claimed the message on his plate was conveying a philosophical and political message concerning his views about gasoline-powered cars and the environment. Prior to the suit, he was ordered by the DMV to turn in his plate, or else have his car registration canceled.

In October, Judge McElroy had issued a preliminary injunction, which concluded that the law was likely violating the First Amendment. The consent judgment entered Friday served as a formal strike down of the statute.

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The judgment also allows Carroll to keep his “FKGAS” license plate.

In the suit, attorneys from the ACLU had argued that the law was vague, and violated the First Amendment by giving the DMV uncontrolled discretion to ban speech based on the viewpoint of the message.

The DMV maintains a list of more than 1,000 prohibited license plate letter and number combinations.

Combinations such as “CHUBBY” and “DRUNK” were banned from being placed on a vanity plate, while combinations such as “FATTY” and “TIPSY” were allowed. “REDNECK” was prohibited, but “REDNEC” and “REDNEK” were allowed, as was “OLDFRT.” “CHRIST” was not allowed, but “JEWISH” was. “AIDS,” “GAY,” “LESBIAN,” “YANKEE,” and “SLOB” were also reportedly prohibited.

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.