The great ICUHAJI debacle of ’12

| May 22, 2012 | 48 Comments

I’ve contacted the lawyer and the author of this article in an unrealized attempt to get the actual lawsuit or filings in the court, but alas nothing so far. Nonetheless, from the Virginia Pilot comes this little bit of asshattery:

They were seven letters on the license plates: ICUHAJI.

Phonetically, it could be read, “I see you, Haji.”

To the Department of Motor Vehicles, the message was considered offensive to Arab Americans and grounds for the tags’ revocation.

But to a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, the plates sent a message of support for the soldiers who served with him during two tours in Iraq.

Sean Bujno of Chesapeake, who was honorably discharged in 2009, is appealing last month’s decision by the DMV to revoke his plates. In Circuit Court documents, he contends that DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb violated his free-speech rights and his 14th Amendment right to due process.

OK, first, I really don’t see how that sends a message of support, but to each their own I suppose. I’m not a huge believer that every use of the “Haji” is evil incarnate, showing the racist bigotted views of the military. Haji-mart to me never meant anything bad, in fact, to me it was a little slice of Eden where one could get 12 seasons of some TV show for like $1 a disc. (This last trip I purchased Legend of the Seeker, Stargate Atlantis, Sarah Connor Chronicles and Farscape, thus solidifying my nerd credentials.)

The free-speech rights thing strikes me as absurd though.

“The government can’t be charged with deciding what we can and cannot say,” said Andrew D. Meyer, Bujno’s attorney. “There are going to be people who don’t like a certain message, but that is why there is the First Amendment.”

See, I don’t really see it that way. If Sgt Bujno wants to go out to the village green and repeatedly yell “I See you Haji” until he is blue in the face, that would be a Free Speech issue. But my limited understanding of license plates is that they are meant to identify an automobile, not to make some sort of statement. You have a right to say “I effen hate the Yankees” but I wouldn’t get away with using that as my statement in a public HS Yearbook. This strikes me as analogous to the argument made by the IVAW dipshits that kept trying to crash the Presidential Debates. Sure, you have a right to say what you want, but you don’t have the right to hijack something public to make that happen. You don’t have the right to dress up in outlandish gear including a stocking over your head for your drivers license picture, but you certainly have the right to do that if you feel like going to McDonalds looking like a collosal idiot.

I’m curious what you guys think? Setting aside whether it is appropriate (which I think is at least arguable) do you guys think that the Gov’t owes you an obligation to express yourself however you want on your vanity plate, or does it seem that the Gov’t has a certain obligation to maintain decorum? The 14th Amendment angle also seems weak to me. The Gov’t isn’t depriving this guy of a license plate, they’re simply requiring that it meet the standard they set which facially appears to be pretty content neutral. For instance, I’m guessing “ICUHONKY” would also be verbotten.

Category: Politics

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  1. CI says:

    I’m in complete agreement. While I don’t have a problem with the message, a license plate is government property and is under no obligation to honor vanity plate requests.

    If anyone really wants to get in the weeds of the legal debate and precedence regarding speech and license plates, a good read can be found here: http://www.georgemasonlawreview.org/doc/12-2_Colling.pdf

  2. TSO says:

    Good find CI. No wonder I couldn’t locate that, it’s not like I was a student at GMU when that came out. Oh wait. Shit, there goes that defense.

    BTW- For anyone who cares, I passed my MPRE, and GMU law sent my transcript yesterday to the Indiana Bar, so I should be an actual official lawyer in a few weeks.

  3. valerie says:

    The states can and do refuse to issue plates that are obscene, offensive, etc. A basic rule is, where the plates are made by prisoners, and an inmate starts laughing, the plate gets pulled.

    An individual does not have the right to force the state to support his personal comments.

  4. Jack says:

    Too many people think that “freedom of speech” means “freedom to do whatever the eff I want, anywhere I want, anytime I want.” Not so.

    The term ‘haji” certainly could be taken as a derogatory term. I’ve used it, but it’s not something I would use as to describe middle easterners in polite company, which is pretty much my personal standard for appropriateness.

  5. TSO says:

    Everyone interested should read that piece that CI linked incidentally. Very good piece.

  6. Dbie says:

    1. Totally agree with you.
    2. Congrats on passing your MPRE!
    3. “Haji” may technically mean “someone who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca”… but the term is used in a derogatory way by most non-Muslims.

  7. TSO #2: BTW- For anyone who cares, I passed my MPRE, and GMU law sent my transcript yesterday to the Indiana Bar, so I should be an actual official lawyer in a few weeks.

    Congrats… and since I think the world of your wife I’ll omit any thoughts on how badly the world needs more lawyers, etc.

    And I agree the exercise mentioned in your post seems silly.

  8. JP76er says:

    I agree with what everyone has said. Especially with Jack. I’m just a civilian and I know that Haji could definitely be taken as a derogatory term. I know what it can mean & have heard it used but I would never use it around people that I am not close to. I shoot a lot with vets and that could be a different audience than the general public.

  9. a175darby says:

    I agree…..he is pissin up a rope on this one….but they did issue it and then took it back, I hope that is correct, so couldn’t he have said that they “hey you issued it so there for you approved it? Anyway he should just get a new plate that reads CABOVE and on a bumder sticker right above the plate let it read “ICUHAJI”. That way it can be a generic attention getter!

    RLTW

  10. a175darby says:

    bumber=bumper

    Carp!

  11. a175darby says:

    WTF…….bumder=bumper

    Double carp!!

  12. Yat Yas 1833 says:

    TSO-Congrats! I know how hard it was just getting through college but law school? No Thanks.

    My niece-in-law works for Az MVD and she says they have a set of written standards every personalized plate application must pass before being issued. She says she’s seen some funny ones and cute ones that don’t pass muster and are rejected. Same set of standards for everyone. This guy IS pissing up a rope! (Can I say that?)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Unless this guys name is Jonny Quest, it’s pretty obvious it’s gonna be offensive to people. Then again, if he IS Jonny Quest, it’s totally legitimate, lol.

  14. BohicaTwentyTwo says:

    How about ICUCHARLIE for you Vietnam-era folks?

    I still believe that the Haji name originated in Kuwait, where many of the TCNs were Sikhs from India and wore turbans like Haji from the old Johnny Quest show.

  15. Mordrach says:

    A similar issue occurred in Virginia about 15 years ago: some Neo-Nazi-sort of guy got vanity plates that read “ZYKLON B”. For those who are unaware, Zyklon B was one of the gases used to kill inmates at Nazi concentration camps. The plates were supposedly approved because the person taking the application thought the applicant was a Battlestar Galactica fan (I suppose Cylon is close enough). Needless to say, the plates were recalled after some embarrassment.

    Here’s a brief article about the douche-> http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-05-13/news/9705140020_1_plates-zyklon-vanity

  16. NHSparky says:

    Of course you can’t use ICUHONKY…that’s 8 letters and in VA the limit is 7.

    But agreed on DMV pulling the plates. It is not a 1A issue and could also be considered government sponsorship of discriminatory speech.

  17. Dave says:

    why is every “I wanty to be crass and in your face” thing in the world a 1st Amendment question? Most of the time it’s simply a matter of crass tastelessness. Little boys and girls who need their freakin’ mouths washed out with soap.

    Best vanity tag ever, courtesy of an OLD Car and Driver article in the ’80s – 6UL DV8

  18. Yat Yas 1833 says:

    Sparky, Az has a seven letter limit too but they did allow “1MARDIV” (my brother), “USMCSGT” (me), “MCFAMLY” (my daughter) and “USMCSON” (my nephew).

  19. LittleRed1 says:

    TSO – congrats!

    Although I’ve seen a number of instances where people use Haji as a title in their name (sort of like Jr.), I also see where it could be a problem. The state lets you have vanity plates and the state decides the limits, so no free speech – he can get a bumper sticker made that says the same thing.

  20. Lthrnck1775 says:

    If VA didn’t allow every idiot with $5 a vanity plate…. “you want vanity? oh, that will be $750 please”

    Tax shortfall solved (property value lower = property tax lower)

  21. verm says:

    I’ll take the other side.

    Except for Police Officers and others in a like capacity. There is no requirement to read license plates.

    If there is a list of restricted terms then fine. If not then why should any bureaucrat be in a position to pass judgement on a private citizens speech?

    Maybe his initials spell out a term that a small minority of people find offensive. On the other hand maybe someone close to him is named Haji (quite popular name in certain parts of the world. Are we sure hi dead dog wasn’t named Haji?

    Bottom line there is someone somewhere who will take offense to absolutely anything written, spoken, drawn, etc…

  22. JP says:

    If people are willing to pay $$$ to express themselves via their license plates, so be it.

    Enough with the PC nonsense. Free speech means just that. If those asshats at WBC can protest funerals, then this guy can have his haji plate.

  23. JP says:

    @C.I…just read that article, good point

  24. Ben says:

    The free speech argument is a stretch. The plates aren’t even his property. They belong to the state. He could put a bumpersticker on his car that says ICUHAJI, because the bumper is his.

    I don’t understand the message of support either.

    If you want a truly dumb case of license plate “censorship”, recall that the Nevada DMV refused to issue one that said “GO PALIN” because–get this–someone determined that it was vulgar. The state has rules against vulgar messages on vanity plates.

  25. DR_BRETT says:

    I like Nos. 21 and 22 .
    And how about ICUBO

  26. JP says:

    How about “FUIVAW”?

  27. JustPlainjasin says:

    I remember when I was a kid I thought 3M TA3 was clever. Now that I am older I just realize it is just kinda annoying. As far as being a free speech issue what really is he trying to say? Nothing really worthwhile, plus it is technically public property (the plates) and there is no obligation that they state put up whatever he wants to say. I don’t think the state would put out a proctologists plate “ass doc” even though there is a much more logical argument for it. Haji can be seen as offensive as can the word ass. Now we are just arguing to the level of offense, it just happens in this case many of us in this case can associate “haji” with someone who in someway with someone who has wronged us, thus making the case more sympathetic. Of course I am a bit crazy so…

    I would also be wary of a mobile proctologist with plates “ass doc”…

  28. JustPlainjasin says:

    Btw TSO good luck on the bar!

  29. Jack says:

    I remember a squad leader at FT Bragg back in the day (tuesday) who had personalized plates on his muscle car…I think it was a slate grey 67 Chevy Camaro SS. The plates were “UNHOLLY.” I asked him what that meant, and he explained that he appilied for “UNHOLY” but the DMV wouldn’t issue that to him.

    Just a little tale.

  30. uncivilized says:

    Years ago, I read a novel in which the heroine, wanting a vanity plate that referred to the, er, effluent of the nether regions of the female anatomy, submitted the Victorian-era word “quim” to the DMV. (Look it up.) Evidently, the censors at the DMV had misplaced their Victorian-era dictionary, and the heroine received her, er, vanity tag.
    So – if the guy wants ICUHAJI on his tags, let him. Most folks wouldn’t know what it meant even if they had the time to read it.

  31. Hondo says:

    Have to disagree, TSO.

    I don’t recall there being a “freedom from being offended” exception to the 1st Amendment. Or any guarantee of never being offended in the Bill of Rights (or any other part of the Constitution), either. So unless the state wants to contend that “Haji” or “Hadji” unconditionally constitutes “fighting words”, is unconditionally offensive, or is legally obscene, I can’t see how they’re justified in banning a vanity plate containing the term.

    And I think that any state will have a hard time doing that. The “reasonable man” test would argue against it, as the term is perfectly acceptable to Muslims when used in proper context.

    Suppose an observant Muslim wants to apply for a vanity plate showing that he/she has performed the hadj, and thus is in fact a “hadji” – like “IMHADJI”? Or happens to have the last name “Hadji” (don’t laugh – at least one reasonably famous Moroccan soccer player, Mustapha Hadji, does). Should that plate be banned as well? If so, how about “Chrstian” or “Kristos” (or other variants thereof)? After all, don’t some Atheists find the concept of Christianity offensive? Hell, some people would find the plate “USA#1″ offensive!

    Bottom line: this is state-sponsored restriction of speech based solely on perceived content. Outside of “fighting words” or a clear and immediate threat to public safety, I’m not sure I buy allowing that.

  32. Bubblehead Ray says:

    I had Navy Vet plates in Wisconsin that read BBLHD, but that was my one and only vanity plate. Now I just don’t feel like paying extra. As far as the Haji plates are concerned, the only thing I find objectionable about the State’s position is that they allowed them on the road for 4 years before recalling them. Once they’re approved for a reasonable period of time, they should be good to go.

    Caro could get ICUTSO, except everyone would wonder who SO is and why Caro cut him.

    (Oh… Best one I’ve seen lately was MGSO4 (abbreviation for Magnesium Sulfate. I thought “cool, a vanity plate for geeks, no wonder I get it”.)

  33. Just Plain Jason says:

    Bubble head that is really dorky, but as soon as you said it I got it. Mg S O4 yep I know some chemistry….how about a mole…hehehehehehe.

  34. bobby says:

    @ #12 “Maybe his initials spell out a term that a small minority of people find offensive”

    I thought of the story below and googled the plate that I remembered …

    For years, California resident Judy Ann Petty has had her initials, JAP, on her purse, check book, and other personal items. Since her husband’s name is Robin Arnett Petty, she has vanity license plates that say RAPNJAP. Now the California Department of Motor Vehicles says her plates have to go because of the letters JAP, which offend Japanese. Harvey Horikawa, the Japanese-American lawyer who prodded the department into action, says “I would think it would be sufficient to go with ‘JP and RP.’ “ Mr. and Mrs. Petty have vowed to fight the ruling. (Minerva Canto, ‘JAP’ Initials on License Plate Called a Racial Affront, Associated Press, Aug. 27, 1997.)”

  35. B Woodman says:

    I don’t think the state has a leg to stand on here. They opened the door when they allowed vanity plates to begin with (for the extra tax revenue I’m assuming).
    If the state were to disallow vanity plates that offended somebody / everybody, they would have to have a full time staffed “Office of Vanity License Plates PC” (extra cost and complexity), with ever shifting words and definitions. Eventually there would be NO vanity plates, as the OVLPPC would say that everything offends somebody.

  36. JustPlainjasin says:

    What can we learn from all of this…look hard enough you can be offended.

  37. Ann says:

    Well, apparently the Afghans won’t be offended since they love to stick Hadji somewhere in their names.

  38. Casey says:

    Hondo, I think it’s less a case of worrying about the easily offended and more (as TSO said) of what the local BMV finds appropriate. License plates are expressly designed for identification, and the vanity angle is secondary.

    With respect, B Woodman, the issue is not that complex, nor are the definitions “ever shifting,” except for a very few Mrs. Grundys who have no sense of humor. Yes, there is a grey area in-between, but since the BMV giveth, the BMV can taketh away; in this case they get to say what is and isn’t appropriate. No 1st Amendment question at all.

    And -please- let’s not use California examples for lawsuits. They’ve got a ton of crazy out there, including judges who don’t throw some of those nitwit cases out in the first place.

    P.S. Dave @#17: best plate I ever saw belonged to a young lady who once lived upstairs from me. If I recall correctly, it was NOUNDD. When I asked what it meant, she said “No undie(s).” Best part: her mom got them for her as a present. I kid you not.

  39. USMC Steve says:

    I bet you fifty bucks that “ICUHONKY” if it would fit, would not be banned because of the color of individual what wud be puttin it on their ride, Yo.

  40. USMC Steve says:

    On another Note, as long as I have to pay for it, it is NOT GOVERNMENT PROPERTY. It is mine. If the State of VA can show where Haji is defined specifically as a slur, like nigger is, then they can have the plates. If not they are wrong.

  41. DaveO says:

    My terps and ANA soldiers called anyone who went on a Hajj a Hajji. Guess they’re racist and insensitive too.

  42. Anonymous says:

    U people are whiney a holes. I just saw somebody with the vanity plate “mahfaka”. If that’s not offensive neither is this. Get over yourselves.

  43. Anonymous says:

    DMV loses its case (bad AG rep?) due to exceeding the law in its selective application of judging good/bad while also violating the 1st Amendment right of individuals so now it defies the court’s ruling in another internal hearing on the plate using the same illogic that led to their loss. Messrs Bujno and Meyer can spend their money and time, respectively, as they wish. Not so with our taxpayer money sent to Richmond one would think. DMV/AG loses this round and then head to the State Supreme Court? Abuse.

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