US: Georgia state sued for refusing to allow ‘gay’ vehicle number plates

PinkNews logo on pink background with rainbow corners.

The US state of Georgia is being sued by a man who was refused to be allowed the word “gay” on personalised number plates, despite that other political or religious expressions were allowed.

James Cyrus Gilbert filed a lawsuit which contends that the state violated his consitutional rights by rejecting his application for personalised number plates reading “4GAYLIB”, “GAYPWR”, and “GAYGUY”.

The three tag lines appear on the state’s website listing banned number plates, despite that some plates expressing political or religious expressions have been allowed.

“It’s not like I was asking for something that was vulgar or over the top,” Mr Gilbert, said. “Denying someone the right to put gay on their tag, that’s political. If I want I could get a tag that said straight man, but because it had gay on it, it’s not available.”

The lawsuit, filed by two free-speech lawyers against Robert G Mickell, comissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services, sought to compel the state to approve the number plates, and a court order declaring that the state regulated governance was unconstitutional.

The lawsuit also seeks nominal damages, and attorney fees

Cynthia Counts, one of the attorneys representing Mr Gilbert said: “I think it’s pretty clear the statute has been applied arbitrary without regard to any state interest,” she said. “And the restrictions have reflected viewpoint discrimination and that alone should be fatal.”

The lawyers fighting Mr Gilbert’s case said the issue may seem trivial to some, but it is representative of a wider attitude towards allowing freedom of speech.

Gerry Weber, the other lawyer representing Mr Gilbert, said: “Really these license plates are one of the primary ways Georgians use free speech.”

“Not many Georgians go to rallies, but thousands of Georgians express themselves through these license plates. “Think about how many people over the course of a year see your license plate. That’s a huge audience.”

Usually, vulgar and hateful messages are banned by the state, but some philosophical and political expressions were deemed unsuitable. Department of Revenue had admitted that the process of approving or denying the licence plates was inconsistent. 

Licence plates approved included “HATERS”, but denied “HATERS1”. They approved “BLKBERI”, “BLKCHRY” and “BLCBUTI”, but denied “BLKACE”.

A spokesperson for the department told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that inconsistencies came from several different people with different personal views making decisions on what was offensive.

Officials said that employees attempted to be fair, but maintaining neutrality was not possible when the department had to make dozens of judgement calls a week.

If the lawsuit is able to prove that the decision making process is arbitrary, that may help Mr Gilbert win. It could also be possible to prove that denying some number plates, but allowing those carrying religious messages such as “JESUS4U”, favours one political or religious belief over another.

State law said that the department would not allow profanity, language considered obscene by the community, or language which ridicules a person, group or religious belief or being, race or ethnicity.

In order for the state to deny the allegations of discrimination, it woud have to argue that a licence plate with a message such as “GAYPWR”, was obscene.