A Las Vegas man won a courtroom battle Wednesday with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles over his "HOE" license plate, which the agency tried to cancel on grounds that he was using a slang reference to prostitutes.
The high court said the DMV based its opposition to William Junge's plate on definitions found in the Web-based Urban Dictionary, which includes user contributions. Justices ruled that the contributed definitions "do not always reflect generally accepted definitions for words."
Junge, whose case was pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said he got the "HOE" plate in 1999 for his Chevy Tahoe, after being told "TAHOE" wasn't available.
"It's nonsense," Junge said of the state agency's efforts to pull his plates. The 62-year-old said he was referring to his vehicle's model and not to prostitutes with his plates, adding: "That was their interpretation. Shame on them."
The high court said 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 of Nevada said the attempt by a DMV supervisor to cancel Junge's license plate violated constitutional First Amendment protections. Junge dropped out of the litigation after the DMV appealed to the Supreme Court, but the ACLU continued the fight.
"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 state 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.