As far as the State of New York is concerned, Cosmo Kramer is the “assman” when he is given that license plate by the New York DMV. But could a State really force someone to have a license plate they don’t want?
The truth is, whether you’re Wilt Chamberlain, a proctologist, or just some guy with a rotund posterior, a State cannot force someone to have a license plate on your vehicle that goes against her morality. This was decided in the 1977 case of Wooley v. Maryland, in which the Supreme Court determined that drivers did not have to bear the New Hampshire State motto “Live Free or Die,” on their license plates, as it violated driver’s First Amendment right against mandated speech. So no matter how many Sallys Kramer dates, or how often passersby call him “assman” (for stopping short with Estelle?), the Sate of New York actually has no concern on whether Kramer is or is not the assman.
But let’s ask the flip question as well. Obviously, Frank’s proctologist actually is the assman. Could the State of New York say that the “million to one shot” Doc is prohibited from getting “assman” put as his vanity license plate? Believe it or not, the Supreme Court answered this very question in the 2015 case Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, answered this very question. Sort of.
In that case, a Texas group wanted to have the Confederate Flag placed on their license plates. But the state of Texas uncomfortably shifted in their seats and . . . well you get the drift. So, naturally, the group of Texans sued. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, who thought the petitioner’s case was pretty fusilli and sided with the State of Texas. Essentially, the Court ruled that since the group could put their message (the Confederate flag in this case) on a bumper sticker directly next to the license plate, the State was not infringing on free speech by preventing the Confederate Flag from being placed directly on the license plate. Furthermore, since license plates concern Government speech, if Texas did allow the flag on the license plate it could be viewed as the State’s endorsement of the confederate flag! The Court wanted to fully stop short on that idea. (For further research, check out the “I Believe” case in Summers v. Adams)
(January 3, 2021, update: At least one circuit court has held that a state could ban specific and certain words on a vanity license plate that are particularly offensive because the same message could be conveyed through other words. Under this ruling, our the proctologist would need to find an alternative way of cleverly describing his chosen profession.)
So back to our second question. Could New York prohibit the proctologist from getting “assman” vanity plates? As far as the writers of Seinfeld Law are concerned, yes. The Supreme Court did hold that license plates are considered government speech, and therefore the State can decide whether or not it wants to speak in a certain way. Additionally, at least one circuit court has held that the DMV can ban certain words so long as there are alternative ways of conveying the same message. So if you’re trying to get a little too fusilli with your license plates, the DMV is going to “pull a Frank” on you and stop short.
But what do you think? Could New York deny the “assman” vanity plates? Where’s the line you would draw on what can or can not be put on a license plate?