September 11, 2013

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of a U.S. Army veteran whose attempts to acquire a personalized license plate that includes a variation of the word “infidel” were unconstitutionally rejected by the Secretary of State for being “offensive to good taste and decency.”

A message on a vanity license plate may be brief, but that doesn’t mean there are fewer constitutional protections,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “The ‘good taste and decency’ standard can be interpreted at the whim of officials in charge at any given moment and therefore it’s anybody’s guess what message will survive the review process. This subjectivity is exactly what our First Amendment was designed to guard against.”

Michael Matwyuk, who lives in the Upper Peninsula, is a retired U.S. Army sergeant who was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005 at the height of hostilities in that country. He and his fellow troops were constantly under attack by insurgents who called American soldiers “infidels.” Sgt. Matwyuk and other soldiers came to embrace their identity as “infidels” and proudly refer to themselves as “infidels” as a reminder of the bond they share. Many soldiers have expressed this identity through tattoos, patches and clothing that bear the word.

In late 2012, Sgt. Matwyuk hoped to join others in expressing his identity as an Army veteran who served in Iraq by acquiring a personalized license plate through the Secretary of State’s website. He selected the Iraq War Veteran service plate and typed in several variations of the word “infidel” to check the plate’s availability.

He was told that his first selection, “INFIDL,” was not available. He then typed in “INF1DL” and his order was accepted. However, he was later informed that his license could not be issued because it might carry a connotation offensive to good taste or decency in violation of the Motor Vehicle Code.

“As American soldiers in Iraq, we were called ‘infidels’ on a daily basis. As a way to cope, we decided to take this word, meant to hurt and demean us, as our own,” said Sgt. Matwyuk. “It’s a point of pride and patriotism that many of us identify with, just as we would identify with the word ‘soldier.’ This license plate is simply an expression of my service as an Iraqi combat veteran.”

In its lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, the ACLU argues that the state statute governing personalized license plates is unconstitutionally overbroad, vague and content-based, meaning it allows some words, but denies others based solely on their message.

“The state is essentially telling residents you have a platform to express your identity, religion, sense of humor or political ideology, unless we don’t like it,” continued Korobkin. “That is clearly unfair and unconstitutional.”

In addition to Korobkin, Sgt. Matwyuk is represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director.

Read the ACLU’s complaint on behalf of a U.S. Army veteran