There was an interesting story on hacker news today: A man with the vanity plate NULL ended up gettings thousands of dollars of parking tickets because of a computer glitch. When he complained about this to the DMV they told him to change his plate.

He says he won't and it sounds like this will be working its way through the courts. Is there any precedent though for the government forcing a person to change their plate? Obviously this brings up free speech issues, but there are also legitimate governmental concerns.

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    Ah, little Bobby Tables, all grown up...obligatory XKCD: xkcd.com/327
    – sharur
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 17:35
  • The government is not forcing Droogie to change his license plate. He can keep it if he wants.
    – emory
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 20:11
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    The government owns the license plate, not you.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 23:38

2 Answers 2


Walker (Texas DMV) v. Sons of Confederate Veterans holds that

Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech, and thus Texas was entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design...

When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says

The plate "NULL" falls into the category covered by this ruling. The court has

'refused “[t]o hold that the Government unconstitutionally
discriminates on the basis of viewpoint when it chooses to fund a program dedicated to advance certain permissible goals, because the program in advancing those goals necessarily discourages alternative goals.”'

In the aforementioned case, the viewpoint that was not permitted was arguably a pro-Confederate viewpoint, and it was ruled that the government has no obligation to express such a viewpoint.

The court found that strict scrutiny under the Free Speech Clause is not applicable in this case; in a potential application of strict scrutiny to the instant circumstances, the government is actually on even stronger footing, since there is a compelling government interest at stake (the ability to bill people for road usage without the need for toll booths). Governments have long been able to restrict insulting and profane words as vanity plates. I would be very surprised if he is able to force the government to accept this plate.

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    I'm not familiar with that case, but was the plate already accepted in that case? Does anything change given that the person here has already gotten his plate approved? Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 17:39
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    @DavidGrinberg: As I understand it, "speech" can be an event, and in the literal meaning it is, but it can also be a continuous action. The latter is the case when displaying a message. That's special in the sense that the action can be stopped, and stopping is also protected. People (and governments) may change their mind.
    – MSalters
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 7:17

Vanity plates are always issued at the discretion of the the DMV of any state; that option is written into each states' law. Plates can be denied due to obscenity, references to crimes or drugs, or anything the DMV decides is distracting or offensive to drivers or the public. See https://www.google.com/search?&q=DMV+denied+vanity+plates

The DMV has final discretion over plates; they can cancel any plate and require anyone to get a new plate. The new plate can be whatever the driver wants, as long as it's not an already rejected vanity plate.

People have sued over being denied their particular plate, claiming free speech. One such case: Lawsuit challenges DMV's rejection of personalized license plate.

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    This is a little different though - the plate was already approved and used. He isn't applying for the first time. Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 17:37
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    It's not different in that the DMV has final discretion over the plate; they can cancel the plate and require him to get a new plate. The new plate can be whatever he wants, as long as it's not an already rejected vanity plate. Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 17:46
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    People have sued over being denied their particular plate, and occasionally they've won.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 2:21

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