A soccer fan who just wanted to celebrate his beloved Fulham Football Club all the way from California ran into a roadblock with the Department of Motor Vehicles when he was banned from putting a slogan that officials determined might be deemed offensive.
Jon Kotler, a lawyer and constitutional scholar at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalist, has been an avid fan of the London-based soccer club for years, diligently watching as they battled to re-enter the Premier League over the 2017-2018 season.
Inspired by their triumph, Kotler applied for a vanity plate to proudly proclaim his loyalty to the club by using an acronym for the team’s slogan, “Come on You Whites,” or “COYW.”
Fulham soccer players wear white jerseys.
The California DMV rejected the proposed plate, claiming that the abbreviation could have “racial overtones,” and carry “connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”
Kotler claims in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles that the department’s rejection of his personalized license plate violated his First Amendment rights – specifically his freedom of speech.
"You can't allow bureaucrats to make decisions that are fundamental to what it means to be an American, and our free speech is one of those things," Kotler said in a news release. "As I tell my students, ours is the only constitution in the world that protects its citizens against their own government. When the government starts to infringe on our rights, that's when the individual citizen must speak up. If we don’t, we’ll get what we deserve and will have only ourselves to blame."
The Department of Motor Vehicles said Tuesday that it does not comment on pending lawsuits.
In its rejection letter to Kotler, the Department of Motor Vehicles acknowledged the difficulties in balancing "an individual's constitutional right to free speech and expression while protecting the sensibilities of all segments of our population."
"I sent them tons of material," Kotler told the BBC. "Press releases, stories from the British media, letters from the chairman who uses 'come on you whites'.”
He added: “I pointed out that many clubs in Britain are known by their color - the blues, the clarets. Nobody thought the Liverpool reds were communists. Even when I did it, it was the furthest thing from my mind that anyone would object to it. I was shocked, absolutely."
The 78-year-old, who was born in New Jersey and now lives in Calabasas, California, told the BBC that he has been a fan of Fulham FC for decades after watching a match “by happenstance” during a visit to London.
He said he travels to see the team play in Britain an average of around eight to 10 times a season – often taking the 11-hour flight on a Thursday and returning back to the U.S. by Tuesday for classes.
Kotler's suit asks the court to declare the Department of Motor Vehicles' criteria for personalized license plates unconstitutional. He also wants the department to pay his court costs.
According to Los Angeles Magazine, the California DMV receives hundreds of thousands of vanity license plates applications – nearly 250,000 were fielded by the department in 2018.
The department employs four full-time workers to sort through the applications and eliminate any that may trigger the DMV’s standard of “good taste and decency.”
In a 1973 case, the California Court of Appeals upheld the Department of Motor Vehicles' standard in rejecting a plaintiff's claim that his free speech was violated when the department rejected his requested license plate, "EZ LAY."
Constitutional scholar David L. Hudson said courts are often split in cases claiming censorship over personalized plates.
"It appears in this case that the government has engaged in regrettable censorship of Mr. Kotler's speech," said Hudson, who teaches at Tennessee's Belmont University and is a fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute. "To me, courts should be very sensitive to viewpoint discrimination and should err on the side of protecting the individual's speech from government censorship."
Kotler is being represented pro bono by the libertarian-leaning nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation. The group criticized the Department of Motor Vehicles' "attempt to make itself the speech police" in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
"You can call Jon a sports fan or a First Amendment expert, but the DMV's misguided efforts to regulate license plates have misbranded Jon as a racist," the foundation said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.