If I were to go outside right now with the roll of black gaffers’ tape I always keep on me (the result of a childhood promise made to former SNL alumnus Nora Dunn) and strip off chunks of tape, and then apply those strips of tape to my license plate, pretty much everywhere I stick that tape will land my ass in trouble with the law. I can’t cover the registration stickers, either of them, I can’t cover any of the digits or do anything that will obfuscate the legibility of any of the digits, there’s really not much I can do at all. But, significantly, there is precisely one (1) part of my state-issued license plate I can cover up, should I so choose. And my right to do that has been defended by the Supreme Court. Yes, that Supreme Court.
I know I made you jump all the way to the second paragraph and the story itself to find the answer to this, but, well, I gotta eat, and I want your precious, precious clicks. But you’ve earned it now, so here you go: the one part of your state-issued license plate you can legally obscure is the motto.
That’s right! The motto! Or the slogan, or the mission statement, or state-approved quote, or whatever the hell you want to call it! You know what I’m talking about. These things:
The little bits of extra text there that are printed on the license plates in an effort to convey a bit about the character of the state or some ideas whoever was in charge of license plates at the time thought were important. But here’s the thing: if you don’t believe in whatever that motto says, you don’t have to have it legible on your plate!
If you think Empire State, my ass, cover it up! Aloha State? More like Alwhogivesashit State! Pure Michigan? Pure crap! Lone Star? How about Lone Wang? Sportsman’s Paradise? Sportsman’s wang! First in Flight? First in this, more like it (makes wanking-off hand gesture)!
You see what I’m getting at. You don’t even need a good reason, though there are certainly good reasons to do this. In fact, back in 1975, a North Carolinian named Walter Williams III had a pretty solid reason. You see, at the time, the North Carolina license plate slogan was First In Freedom, and Williams, a black man, felt that for him and people like him, the idea that North Carolina had any special claims to being especially free were disingenuous, at best.
He covered the motto with tape, one of a number of people to do so, and was eventually pulled over as a result, at least in part:
A white Smithfield police officer stopped [Williams] and asked about the tape. After Williams explained that he didn’t believe North Carolina offers equal freedom for blacks, the officer gave him the ticket and added the speeding charge, Williams said.
Williams said that while he was explaining why he taped the slogan, “He told me if I didn’t like the slogan I ought to move.” The officer was laughing as he drove away, Williams said.
The North Carolina Civil Liberties Union defended William’s right to obscure the slogan, “to show disagreement as part of the free speech.” Williams didn’t have to wait too long to be vindicated, because other people in other states were doing similar things, for a wide variety of reasons. In New Hampshire, a man named George Maynard, a Jehova’s Witness, removed the “or Die” part of the New Hampshire state license plate slogan, “Live Free or Die.” I don’t think Witnesses believe that something like a human-run state is worthy of death oath, or something along those lines. Maynard actually went to jail as a result of his modification of the license plate.
In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that New Hampshire could not constitutionally require citizens to display the state motto upon their vehicle license plates. The Court found that the statute in question effectively required individuals to “use their private property as a ‘mobile billboard’ for the State’s ideological message.” The Court held that the State’s interests in requiring the motto did not outweigh free speech principles under the First Amendment, including “the right of individuals to hold a point of view different from the majority and to refuse to foster. . .an idea they find morally objectionable.”
So, there you go! If you think your state’s license plate motto is stupid, you are under no obligation to display that inanity on either end of your car. Cover it up or change it if you want! As long as it’s not interfering with the overall legibility of the license plate, you should be fine. And that’s not just me saying so – the highest court in the land agrees.
That’s why if I ever move to Ohio I’m Sharpie’ing out that “Birthplace of Aviation” bullshit, because, yeah, the Wright Brothers may have been from there, but they deliberately left and came to lovely North Carolina for that historic first flight. That’s just how it is, Buckears or Buckeyes or whatever you’re called. Just be happy because you have all those astronauts and presidents and the Jeep plant in Toledo or whatever.
I Installed A Ridiculous Vanity Plate On My New Jeep And The Internet Is (Maybe Rightfully) Not Thrilled