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Hart v. Thomas

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Frankfort

November 13, 2019

BENNIE L. HART, Plaintiff,
v.
GREG THOMAS in his official capacity as Secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          GREGORY F. VAN TATENHOVE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Like many states, Kentucky allows drivers to express themselves by choosing the letters or numbers on their license plates. Hence, the proliferation of any number of creative ways to show support for the University of Kentucky Wildcats.[1]

         But this forum has limits. The Commonwealth does not allow drivers to say anything they want with a license plate message. That's fine, but the First Amendment also imposes limits on the Commonwealth. And in this case, as explained below, the Commonwealth went too far. That is why the Court will GRANT Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENY Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I

         In 2016, Plaintiff Bennie L. Hart applied for a license plate through the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's personalized license plate program. [R. 49 at 9.] This program allows drivers to request, for a fee, “a license plate with personal letters or numbers significant to the applicant, ” subject to certain limitations. [K.R.S. § 186. 174(1); R. 49 at 9.] Plates with personalized alphanumeric combinations are commonly known as “vanity plates.”[2] Kentucky also operates a specialized plate program through which individuals may obtain a license plate bearing various designs, such as the logo of their favorite sports team, or promoting an industry they support. These designs are proposed by groups and organizations and must comply with K.R.S. § 186.164(9). Specifically, § 186.164 requires:

(c) The group, or the group's lettering logo, image or message to be placed on the license plate, if created, shall not discriminate against any race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and shall not be construed, as determined by the cabinet, as an attempt to victimize or intimidate any person due to the person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;
(d) The group shall not be a political party and shall not have been created primarily to promote a specific political belief;
(e) The group shall not have as its primary purpose the promotion of any specific faith, religion, or anti-religion;
(f) The name of the group shall not be the name of a special product or brand name, and shall not be construed, as determined by the cabinet, as promoting a product or brand name; and
(g) The group's lettering, logo, image, or message to be placed on the license plate, if created, shall not be obscene, as determined by the cabinet.

K.R.S. § 186.164(9)(c)-(g). Section 186.174(6), which limits what drivers may request on their personalized plates, incorporates by reference-albeit rather clunkily-the requirements of the specialized plate program. K.R.S. § 186.174(6). Therefore, the alphanumeric combination on a vanity plate must comply with the foregoing five conditions, and in addition may not “conflict with or duplicate the alphabetical-numerical system used for regular license plates . . . and shall not contain a combination of more than six (6) letters of the alphabet and Arabic numerals, including spaces.” Id.

         To ensure that each plate issued complies with the requirements of §186.164(9)(c)-(g), each requested alphanumeric combination is subject to review by Transportation Cabinet employees. [R. 49 at 2-4; R. 52 at 4.] Although the review process has evolved significantly over the years, in 2016, when Mr. Hart applied for and was denied the “IM GOD” license plate, each license plate request was first submitted to the county clerk, who then submitted it to one of two Transportation Cabinet employees. [R. 49 at 2.] Those Transportation Cabinet employees had the power to unilaterally accept or deny the plate request. Id. In making the decision whether to approve or deny a plate request, Transportation Cabinet employees were supposed to apply the requirements of §186.164(9)(c)-(g) and only approve plates that comported with the statute. The task proved to be easier said than done. Transportation Cabinet employees were given little to no guidance on how to interpret the statute, and therefore relied solely on “their own common sense of what would be religious or antireligious or not.” [R. 52-1 at 5.] As a result, the statute was inconsistently applied. On March 11, 2016, Mr. Hart received a letter from the Transportation Cabinet in the mail that stated his request for an “IM GOD” vanity plate was denied “because it does not meet the requirements of KRS § 186.174 and 601 KAR 9:012. Section 5.” [R. 49-20.] Although the Transportation Cabinet denied Mr. Hart's vanity plate request based on its reference to religion, a number of “god” plates have been approved, including “GODLVS”, “TRYGOD”, “1GOD”, and “NOGOD”. [R. 49-12.]

         II

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