In the United States, few things are as sacred as God, freedom of speech, and your car. Recently in Florida the three came together to create a hot, if short-lived, debate. On February 11, the Florida Department of Highway Safety issued a letter to Mr Steven Miles, an electrical engineer who also serves as vice president of the organization "Atheists of Florida", instructing him to return his vehicle's license plate, emblazoned with the word "ATHEIST", on the grounds that it was "objectionable". The department was responding to a letter it had received from asgroupsof ten concerned citizens who had written to officials asking that the plate be removed from Miles' car. His license plates had borne the word since 1986. Though other drivers had expressed annoyance at the message over the years in this Bible Belt state, no one had ever tried to have it removed by the state authorities.
As a way of raising revenue, most states allow drivers to pay a fee for the privilege of choosing the letters and numbers to appear on their license plate. Such plates are called "vanity plates", because the messages often bolster the self-esteem of the driver. During the last three years, after case-by-case reviews, Florida blacklisted 57 other vanity license plates that contained words or phrases deemed to be offensive. These included plates with the phrases: "INSANE", "YOMAMA" (your mama), "ON DRUGS", "4 N KILLA" (foreign killer), and "SONAGOD" (son of God). Also banned was "REDNECK", a reference to the stereo-typical uneducated southern man unfriendly to non-whites (and whose neck is red because he works all day out in the fields). It is not uncommon for the state to bar license plates with these types of potentially offensive messages, but it is unusual for the authorities to recall a plate that has already been issued.
Miles did not comply with the DHS's request. Instead he turned to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the best known US freedom of expression watchdog, to defend his First Amendment right to free speech. As he put it, "It's disconcerting to know that the United States is based on freedom of expression, yet in actuality it's quite restrictive." The executive director of the ACLU of Florida, Howard Simon, characterized the state's attempt to recall the plate as "absurd." The ACLU's involvement generated considerable media interest and the story received national attention (including coverage on CNN and Fox news networks). In response to the increased attention, the state of Florida dropped the matter and decided to allow Miles to keep his license plate. It has, however, formed a committee to review all potentially offensive plates.
The issue of license plates as a vehicle for freedom of expression is not unique to Florida. Citizens of Washington express their desire that the District of Columbia (i.e. Washington) be granted statehood on these tags; and last fall, the conservative southern state of South Carolina issued a special license plate bearing the words, "Choose Life" - a clear reference to the pro-life (anti-choice) side of the perennially passionate abortion debate in the U.S. (The latter case prompted a lawsuit by pro-choice groups.) Mr Miles' success in retaining his "ATHEIST" plate is a victory for free speech. But the use of the backs of automobiles to flash simple-minded slogans about complex issues doesn't give us much to cheer about.
The American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org) is a private nationwide organization of lawyers that was set up in 1920 to defend Americans in the exercise of the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, the amendments to the US Constitution that declare what government may not do.
Elected and appointed authorities at all levels tend to overstep the limits of their power from time to time. There are many ways to bring them backsintosline, but discipline comes most directly from the courts, especially the Supreme Court. For the courts to act, however, they must have lawsuits to consider. That isswheresthe ACLU enters the picture: If you feel that your rights have been violated, you can take your problem to the ACLU in your state. ACLU lawyers will advise you on how to proceed, and may agree to represent you in court. Money for ACLU lawyers comes entirely from the dues paid by the ordinary citizens who are supporting members of the organization, as well as from private foundations. For this public-spirited work the ACLU is widely admired.
And widely loathed! Its philosophical commitment to minority rights means that it is always offending one or another part of the population. Its more reasoned critics assert that the ACLU's exclusive focus on rights leads it to undermine the ties that bind society together. Suppose, for example, that a successful ACLU suit expands the freedom of expression in public schools - but at the same time makes it harder for teachers to control students. Freedom of expression is well served.What about education?
■David J. Firestein 方大为(美)