The First Amendment and Your License Plate

FirstAmendmentWhen John Kotler sent his application and request for a personalized license plate to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, he likely didn’t expect to wind up in the news.  However, instead of receiving the plates he ordered, Kotler, a life-long fan of the London-based Fulham Football Club (founded in 1879), received a resounding denial from the California DMV.

See, the “simple” plate Mr. Kotler requested had for seemingly innocuous letters: C.O.Y.W.  To the innocent bystander, these mean nothing.  However, to a life-long fan of a 140-year-old football club, this short acronym refers simply to the Fullham Football Clubs’ jersey and stands for: Come On You Whites.  When Mr. Kotler appealed to the DMV by submitting team merchandise, programs and team history to support his position, he was, again, quickly rebuffed.

What the California DMV likely never expected was to come across a personalized plate applicant like Mr. Kotler.  You see, Mr. Kotler is a professor at the University of Southern California (the other USC) and who exclusively teaches all things First Amendment.  Following the denial of his appeal, Mr. Kotler knew he had to do something.  it was obvious that an employee had researched his four-letter acronym and subjectively decided it was offensive.  As Mr. Kotler pointed out,  “If anyone actually did know what it (the acronym C.O.Y.W.) meant, then they would conversely know that the slogan was in no way offensive.”

While Mr. Kotler is not himself a lawyer, he has many friends who are.  The Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit organization, was founded in 1973 by members of then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s staff as the first public interest law firm dedicated to the principles of individual rights and limited government.  Shortly after Mr. Kotler filed his initial Complaint,  the state of California responded by submitting a Motion to Dismiss.  Mr. Kotler’s attorneys responded with an eloquently written Response in Opposition to the Motion.  On September 3, 2019, the court agreed with Mr. Kotler and, disposed of California’s motion declaring that the case could go forward.  Score one for the “little guy.”

This was a great victory for Mr. Kotler and his team because it allows them the opportunity to argue a case which they believe is such an obvious restriction on Mr. Kotler’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

The best part of all this is that the documents pertaining to Mr. Kotler’s lawsuit can be found on the Pacific Legal Foundation’s website at pacificlegal.org/case/kotler-v-webb.   The site is updated constantly and with the case moving forward, there will likely be some fantastic legal readings in the not-too-distant future.  Even if you have no interest in the First Amendment, these filings are great “real world” examples of legal writing  (which can’t but help budding students of law or freshly-minted lawyers develop their legal writing acumen).

~Matt B. King
Library Research Fellow, 2019-20

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