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Is Censoring Vanity License Plates A Violation Of Free Speech?

By Rick Sallinger

DENVER (CBS4) – Marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but not necessarily on your license plate. In fact, CBS4 has found there are thousands of combinations of letters and numbers that are banned for vanity plates. Some are claiming it should be considered a violation of free speech.

Every car must have a license plate, but if you want to pay a little extra you can have a personalized one.

banned plate8s pkg transfer Is Censoring Vanity License Plates A Violation Of Free Speech?

You can be “GOOROO,” proclaim your ethnic identity like one plate that reads “CUBANA” or support your favorite team like the one that reads “BILSFAN.” But CBS4 found there is a list of 10,000 combinations you cannot put on your Colorado vanity plate. One of them is “4TWENTY”, a reference to marijuana.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Miguel Lopez is the chief organizer of the annual Denver 4/20 rally in Civic Center Park.

“Does it seem odd to you that marijuana is now legal but you can’t refer to it on a license plate?” CBS4’s Rick Sallinger asked Lopez.

“Yes, it’s a violation of our government’s freedom of speech,” Lopez replied.

The vanity plate requests must be approved by the Division of Motor Vehicles which is part of the Colorado Department of Revenue. Lynn Granger is the spokesperson. CBS4 asked her what was wrong with a plate that reads “4TWENTY.”

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“It’s all in whether we determine it to be obscene … if it’s offensive in any way, once issued, if we receive complaints we relook at it and those plates may be recalled,” she said.

CBS4's Rick Sallinger interviews Lynn Granger with the the Colorado Department of Revenue (credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Rick Sallinger interviews Lynn Granger with the the Colorado Department of Revenue (credit: CBS)

The list of banned plates includes thousands of others, especially sexual references, obscenities and references to guns. Also forbidden are the letters spelling AIDS.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Rex Fuller is with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado. He said he understands some people might want to use the letters in a negative way.

“I can see why somebody might want to put a pro AIDS message in support of fighting against AIDS,” Fuller said.

But he understands how some people might use it negatively.

CBS4's Rick Sallinger interviews Rex Fuller with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado (credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Rick Sallinger interviews Rex Fuller with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado (credit: CBS)

A committee from the Division of Motor Vehicles reviews questionable requests not already on their list.

“It’s all in the determination that’s made by our committee of whether it could be considered offensive to some people,” Granger said.

The combination 370HSSV you might not find offensive, but if you turn it upside down, it takes on a whole new meaning.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Granger says people try to get various plates through that shouldn’t be approved.

“People get creative, so sometimes when you read it backwards it says this, or it upside down it says this,” she said.

But the ban on some marijuana related plates has Lopez wanting to fight.

“I would like encourage people to use this opportunity to sue the government,” he said.

But it turns out they already have, in Texas.

All the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which found that states can ban because it’s government, not private speech that is involved in the banning of the vanities.

CBS4’s Rick Sallinger is a Peabody award winning reporter who has been with the station more than two decades doing hard news and investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter @ricksallinger.

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