Car owner sues over state banning 'offensive' license plate

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Posted at 9:40 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 23:31:21-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — You see them every day: custom vanity license plates and the messages behind them.

But now the state is telling a mid-state woman she’s got to change her custom plate because they’ve deemed it offensive, and she’s suing the state to keep it.

The Tennessee Department of Revenue is the agency that checks vanity license plates for offensiveness when they are issued.

The license plate in question reads: 69PWNDU

We'll let you figure out why the Department of Revenue decided to send Leah Gilliam a letter last month, saying her license plate had been "deemed offensive," and she'd have to pick a new one.

Gilliam's attorney, Daniel Horwitz, says despite the connotation you may have thought of, Gilliam is "an astronomy buff and a gamer," and the license plate is merely a reference to the year of the moon landing and a common gaming term.

"The issue here is it just does not say what they're perceiving it to mean," Horwitz said. "This is a harmless, innocuous vanity license plate like thousands of others."

But Horwitz says their lawsuit against the state points to a larger issue -- he says it's unconstitutional for the state to judge license plates based on offensiveness alone -- because what's offensive is a subjective viewpoint.

"People are not going to agree on what is offensive and what is not, and there's a reason why the government does not get to play speech-policing cop in a wide-ranging manner," Horwitz said.

Horwitz also says his client was able to display her vanity plate without issue for more than a decade, then only last month heard from the Department of Revenue.

The Department says it doesn't comment on pending litigation.