USC professor sues DMV, alleges First amendment violation

Attorney and USC professor Jonathan Kotler filed a suit Tuesday against the California Department of Motor Vehicles after his personalized license plate application was denied over fears that the acronym could carry racist connotations.

According to the complaint obtained by the Daily Trojan, Kotler, an associate professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, applied for a vanity plate with the acronym “COYW,” which stands for “Come on You Whites.” He said the phrase is a reference to his favorite British soccer team Fulham FC, which is nicknamed the Whites.

Kotler is getting represented by attorney Wen Fa of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that defends and promotes civil liberties, according to its website.

“Kotler applied for a license plate … and the Department of Motor Vehicles denied the license plate because it was offensive and had racial connotations,” Wa said. “Kotler submitted a bunch of documents that showed the slogan was a commonly used slogan by NBC, by the team, and had no racial connotations whatsoever.”

California DMV director Kathleen Webb is named as a defendant in the complaint, which alleges the department violated Kotler’s civil rights and that the decision was “absurd,” “unfair” and “biased.”

“I think this case highlights arbitrary government action, and when you give the government broad authority to ban things it deems offensive, it is going to make decisions that are arbitrary, biased and wrong,” Wa said.

Kotler, a trial and appellate attorney who argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the City of Riverside v. Rivera case, believes the DMV’s decision is a violation of the First amendment, Wa said.

“Kotler is someone who wants to stand up for his constitutional rights, his First amendments of free speech,” Wa said. “And frankly, he doesn’t think that the department should falsely accuse him of being a racist just because he wants to support a soccer team.”

According to the complaint, California law allows individuals to submit applications for “special interest” license plates. However, the DMV may refuse to issue a license plate that may carry connotations that are offensive or indecent.

According to UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, in an interview with LA Magazine, the DMV decision discriminates against speech based on viewpoint. Volokh said banning vulgarities is viewpoint neutral, but banning offensive material is viewpoint based.

“Those criteria include a configuration containing ‘an insulting or degrading term,’ a configuration with a term considered ‘repulsive,’ or a configuration with ‘a negative connotation to a specific group,’ the complaint read.