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Doesn't matter the language, appeals court rules no profanity allowed on vanity plates

(Courtesy of John T. Mitchell)

 ((Courtesy of John T. Mitchell))

In regards to customized license plates, an appeals court in Maryland ruled that there is no profanity when it comes to vanity … no matter what language it’s in.

After bouncing through the court system for almost five years, the Maryland Court of Appeals unanimously decided late last week that state officials did not violate a Washington D.C.-area lawyer’s right to free speech by recalling his license plate for displaying a Spanish-language curse word.

The court in the Old Line state unanimously agreed that that the word conveyed on the state-issued license plate on John T. Mitchell’s BMW – “mierda,” which is Spanish for s*** –  constitutes “private speech on government property” that is subject to reasonable regulation. The court also ruled that the word does not meet the standard for protected free speech.

“I really had higher expectations from the appeals court,” Mitchell told Fox News Latino. “I thought I was getting through to them that many words in Spanish can have more than just one meaning.”

Mitchell, an antitrust lawyer in Washington D.C., argued that the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration “has no power to restrict expression” that is not obscene. He put the license plate on his car in 2009 as a tongue-in-cheek homage to the farm country in southern Maryland where he lives.

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“Mierda is just another way to say manure,” he said. “And as a child I always wanted to be a farmer.”  

The license plate bore the Spanish word for excrement for more than two years before a fellow motorist complained about it in December 2011.

What started as simply asking the Maryland DMV to reconsider its decision has led a years-long battle that the D.C. lawyer has been fighting.

“I thought this would be a little squabble,” he said. “If I knew it would go for this long I probably would have down more work in the beginning.”

In the summer of 2012, Administrative Law Judge Marleen B. Miller acknowledged that “MIERDA” has many meanings, some of which are not profane, but added that the state could recall the plate because it might offend others.

“The Appellant may feel comfortable driving around in a car labeled with what many Spanish-speaking individuals might consider obscene under at least one definition,” she wrote in her opinion in “Mitchell v. Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.” 

“Nevertheless, a government agency such as the MVA is justified in choosing not to officially support such action. Furthermore, the First Amendment does not require the MVA to do otherwise.”

Mitchell, however, brought up the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark obscenity decision —“Miller v. California” — in which the Court said material that has serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value cannot be considered obscene. Under this ruling, he said it is hard to see how a single profane word can rise to the level of obscenity.

“The test is not what the speaker of a particular language ‘might consider obscene,’ but what the law in fact determines to be obscene,” he told the First Amendment Center.

While the appeals court struck down Mitchell’s challenge, the lawyer said that he is considering whether or not to take the case to the Supreme Court — although, he added that much of that decision will rest on whether or not his wife lets him spend more money on the case.

And until the ruling by the appeals court is finalized and he is notified that he has to take plate off, Mitchell said he’s keeping it on his car.

“While I have lost the skirmishes, until the ruling is finalized I will still enjoy having the plate,” he said.

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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