By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Indiana acted properly in forbidding a police officer from using a vanity license plate that said "0INK," the state's highest court decided on Friday, reversing a lower court ruling.
The Indiana Supreme Court said the state's personalized license plates are government speech. As a result, it said the Bureau of Motor Vehicles does not violate drivers' free speech and due process rights under the U.S. Constitution by denying applications for plates or revoking previously issued plates.
Friday's decision followed the U.S. Supreme Court's June 18 ruling that Texas did not violate the First Amendment by rejecting plates bearing the Confederate flag.
The Indiana case was brought on behalf of drivers including Rodney Vawter, a corporal in the Greenfield, Indiana police department.
He had used the "0INK" plate for three years, but when the motor vehicle bureau in 2013 rejected another plate that read "O1NK," its computers flagged Vawter's plate as too similar, leading to its revocation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which represented Vawter, said many people would recognize that vanity plates were not government speech, noting that plates saying "BIGGSXY," "FOXYLDY" and "BLKJEW" had been issued by the state.
"We're obviously disappointed," Kenneth Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, said in an interview. "We thought that unique license plates that individuals construct for themselves were private speech, not government speech, especially if it were obvious that the speech was not that of the state."
Indiana Attorney General Gregory Zoeller, whose office represented the motor vehicle bureau, said in a statement the court struck a "careful balance" that lets the state reject offensive plates while affording drivers many other means to express themselves on their vehicles.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York)