South Dakota vanity plate restrictions were unconstitutional, lawsuit settlement says

December 13, 2023

PIERRE, S.D. (AP)–South Dakota officials will no longer deny applications for personalized license plates based on whether the plate’s message is deemed to be “offensive to good taste and decency,” following the state’s admission that the language is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights.

The change is part of a settlement state officials reached in a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Lyndon Hart. His 2022 application to the Motor Vehicle Division for a vanity plate reading “REZWEED” was denied after state officials called it “in bad taste.”

Hart runs a business called Rez Weed Indeed, which he uses to support the legal selling and use of marijuana on Native American reservations. Hart intended for the personalized license plate to refer to his business and its mission of promoting tribal sovereignty, the ACLU said.

The section of the law allowing for denial of personalized plates based on the decency clause is “unconstitutional on its face and as applied to the plaintiff,” said U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange in an order signed Friday. The unconstitutional clause can’t be used to issue or recall personalized plates, Lange wrote.

As part of the settlement, filed on Friday, state officials agreed to issue the “REZWEED” plate to Hart, as well as the plates “REZSMOK” and “REZBUD,” that will not be later recalled “so long as personalized plates are allowed by the legislature.” State officials also agreed to issue plates to those previously denied who reapply and pay the required vanity plate fees.

“It’s dangerous to allow the government to decide which speech is allowed and which should be censored,” Stephanie Amiotte, ACLU of South Dakota legal director, said in a statement.

Federal courts have ruled that license plates are a legitimate place for personal and political expression, and courts throughout the country have struck down similar laws, the ACLU said.

In January, North Carolina decided to allow more LGBTQ+ phrases on vanity plates. The state’s Division of Motor Vehicles approved more than 200 phrases that were previously blocked, including “GAYPRIDE,” “LESBIAN” and “QUEER.” Other states — including Delaware, Oklahoma and Georgia — have been sued over their restrictions in recent years.

The South Dakota settlement stipulates that officials will make a public statement, which is to be included on the South Dakota Department of Revenue’s website, announcing the changes to vanity plate standards by Dec. 15.