CARSON CITY — A Las Vegas man won a court battle today with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles over his “HOE” license plate, which the agency refused to renew on grounds that he was using a slang reference to prostitutes.
The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that DMV officials based their refusal of William Junge’s vanity plate on definitions found in the Web-based Urban Dictionary, which includes user contributions.
The justices ruled that the contributed definitions “do not always reflect generally accepted definitions for words.”
Junge, whose lawsuit was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada after it reached the appellate level, said he had the personalized plate from 1999 to 2006, when the DMV refused to let him renew it.
Junge said he wanted “TAHOE” for the plate on his 1999 Chevy Tahoe, but it wasn’t available so he settled for “HOE.” For his plate background, he picked one with a Lake Tahoe panorama.
Junge said his reluctance to comply with the DMV had nothing to do with his preference for the word — it was their attitude.
“I simply went in to renew a plate,” he said. “Ten days later I got a certified letter saying they wanted it. There was no due process, no recourse, anything. They said bring it (the plate) in 10 days, or we’ll pull your registration and driver’s license.”
He decided to appeal the decision to the DMV, and lost. He then hired a lawyer and went to Clark County District Court, which ruled in his favor.
The DMV appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which upheld the District Court’s ruling.
“When it comes down to it, this was all just because the pinheads at the Sahara (Avenue) office of the DMV were on an ultimate power trip,” Junge said.
He invested $1,500 in lawyer fees before the ACLU picked up his case.
“If I had to pay for representation again, I imagine it would have been three times that,” he said.
The high court said the Urban Dictionary “allows, if not encourages, users to invent new words or attribute new, not generally accepted meanings to existing words.”
But “a reasonable mind would not accept the Urban Dictionary entries alone as adequate to support a conclusion that the word ‘HOE’ is offensive or inappropriate,” the justices wrote.
Rebecca Gasca of the ACLU said the action by a DMV supervisor to block Junge from renewing his license plate violated constitutional First Amendment protections.
“While the Urban Dictionary might be an entertaining Web site about the English language, the court acknowledged it’s not a reliable source for DMV decision-making about whether a license plate is vulgar,” Gasca said.
In written briefs submitted to the Supreme Court, an attorney for the DMV argued there was no First Amendment violation and the state has a reasonable basis for regulating vanity plates on vehicles. It also said the term “hoe” was derogatory toward women.
Junge said he never relinquished the plate to the DMV, despite many letters ordering him to do so.
What bothered him the most, he said, was that no one he knew ever had a problem with his plate. The reference to his vehicle was pretty clear to most, he said.
“It obviously didn’t mean anything (derogatory),” Junge said.
He was pleased to hear of the final ruling, although the results were unexpected.
“I expected to lose. You rarely battle the government and come out on top.”
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org of 702-383-0283.