Personal license plates back after officer’s lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS — The license plate that sparked a freedom of speech debate won’t again grace the bumper of Rod Vawter’s Chevy Malibu. The controversial “0ink” plate instead sits in his Greenfield garage, a trophy of sorts of a joke that took the local police officer to the state’s highest court.

Now, after a nearly three-year hiatus, Indiana drivers once again can receive personalized license plates from the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles, a program that Vawter’s lawsuit against the BMV put in flux.

The state suspended its personalized license plate program in 2013 when the Greenfield Police Department officer sued the BMV, stating the bureau violated his constitutional rights when it revoked his “0INK” license plate, which was intended as a light-hearted poke, Vawter said, at a derogatory term for officers — pig.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in November the BMV had the right to deny any personalized plate request it considered improper, and the bureau’s leaders announced this week that personalized plates will be issued again starting Friday.

The plate in question, which was put on Vawter’s personal vehicle, was intended to poke fun at his own profession, but because it was placed on a Fraternal Order of Police specialty license plate, it drew the state’s attention and was flagged as potentially offensive.

The license plate was originally approved by the BMV, and Vawter said he drove with the plate on his car for three years until the bureau revoked it in the spring of 2013.

That’s when Vawter sought legal advice. He couldn’t understand why, when the plate had been approved and re-approved several times, the state agency changed its mind.

“The BMV giveth, and the BMV taketh away,” he joked.

American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana brought a class action lawsuit against the state with Vawter as the lead plaintiff. In response, the BMV’s personal license plate program was put on hiatus while the legal battle played out in court.

Originally, in 2014, a Marion County judge ruled in Vawter’s favor, declaring the standards the BMV used to assess its license plates were improper, said Ken Falk, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney. The institute argued license plates are forms of personal expression and are, therefore, free speech, Falk said; Marion County Judge James Osborn agreed.

The state appealed that decision to the Indiana State Supreme Court, however, arguing license plates are government speech and can be regulated. The state’s highest court ruled in favor of the BMV in November.

Bureau Commissioner Kent Abernathy announced Monday the state would once again issue personalized license plates.

Abernathy told The Associated Press the guidelines for the revamped program will be taken straight from a state statute that says the BMV can deny any plate that “carries a connotation offensive to good taste and decency.”

He said the decision to reinstate the program was delayed as that state took time to prepare for what it believes will be an influx of applications.

“We wanted to make sure it was implemented correctly,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had all the processes in place in being able to handle the anticipated volume and we do it in a fair and accurate way.”

But Vawter won’t be among those contacting the BMV for a specialty plate, he said. He doesn’t trust the revocation won’t happen all over again.

“I’m done with it,” he said. “I’m cutting my losses.”

American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana appealed the decision, asking that the United State Supreme Court make a final determination on the issue, Falk said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.