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Jerry Davich: Motorists say state made wrong turn by banning ‘vanity’ plates

Julie ModesPortage was recently unable renew her “beloved meaningful” vanity plate VEGAN UP because it expired two days before she

Julie Modesto of Portage, was recently unable to renew her “beloved and meaningful” vanity plate, VEGAN UP, because it expired two days before she tried to renew it. She calls it her “tattoo.” | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 22, 2013 6:25AM



Julie Modesto knew nothing about the pending litigation regarding the statewide suspension of personal “vanity” license plates.

So when the Portage woman went into the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in her city last Friday to renew her “VEGAN UP” license plate, she got a crash course on this issue, which has nationwide implications.

Because her plate expired a couple days earlier, it was considered a new vanity plate, which is not allowed under the statewide suspension.

“When I asked why the ban was issued, (the BMV representative) said she didn’t know,” Modesto told me earlier this week.

Here’s why: Indiana stopped offering vanity plates until the outcome of a class-action lawsuit is determined, pending a judge’s decision on the constitutionality of the agency’s restrictions on the wording of those plates.

More specifically, Rodney Vawter, a Greenfield police officer, sued the BMV in May, claiming the agency’s decision to revoke his “OINK” plate violated his free speech rights. Across the country, similar lawsuits have been filed regarding other “misleading or offensive” wording. This state’s broadly worded legal statute was enacted in 1978, long before such a litigation-friendly society became so common.

But one telling detail regarding that police officer’s vanity plate has often been omitted in previous media reports, according to Josh Gillespie, executive director of communications for the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

“The suspension isn’t over just the ‘OINK’ wording, but that it’s for a Fraternal Order of Police license plate,” Gillespie told me, noting that not all police officers embrace such a derogatory pig-related moniker for their profession.

Hoosier motorists who now want a new vanity plate will have to wait until this lawsuit is determined, though existing vanity plates can be renewed.

Modesto’s case, however, is the first in the state regarding a Hoosier motorist who was unaware of the statewide suspension yet whose vanity plate became expired, prompting her to file a formal complaint.

“My argument was why state-issued plates that have expired can be transferred, but vanity plates were exempt,” Modesto said. “Talk about denying our right to free speech, let alone the fact I never read anything from the BMV notifying Hoosiers of this ban.”

As a nosey journalist always looking for column ideas, I knew about the statewide suspension almost immediately and I planned to write about it anyway. Plus, I’m a longtime vanity plate user through the years, such as “CONNECT,” “HI OFFCR,” “JUST BE,” and my current plate, “I WRITE.”

“I love my ‘VEGAN UP’ plate,” Modesto said. “It speaks for me each time I drive and, as I had to explain to the BMV when I originally requested it, it encourages a healthier lifestyle.”

She was furious when she was told that her plate couldn’t be renewed.

“I have never seen her so upset,” said her husband, Bob Modesto. “First she was mad at me, then she was mad at Scott Waddell, the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles commissioner, and finally she was just mad at the BMV and the way they treat people.”

“Our vanity plate is our tattoo, and the state of Indiana had just taken away our tattoo,” he added.

Julie’s “VEGAN UP” vanity plate refers to her veganism lifestyle and the discipline it takes to not eat any meat or dairy products.

“She is proud to ride around with her license plate,” Bob noted.

Bob is proud of his vanity plate, too, which also was denied for renewal for the same reason.

“My plate — ‘IUPU 10s’ — is a tribute to our daughter who plays tennis at IUPUI,” he said.

It was only after Julie left the BMV office when she searched the Internet for more information about the pending lawsuit and the cop’s “OINK” plate.

Modesto called the BMV’s main number, asking why the statewide ban is in place. She wasn’t given an answer, she said. She then requested the number for BMV Commissioner Scott Waddle.

“The woman asked why I needed it and, after I said to complain, she put me through to a supervisor. I left a rather heated message on her voicemail,” Modesto said.

That supervisor was polite, helpful and professional, but there would be no guarantees to renew the Modestos’ plates.

“I just want to ask Waddell why the entire state is being punished for that single incident,” Modesto said. “It reminds me of the teacher who punishes the entire class because of one student’s misbehavior. Stupid then, stupid now.”

“The bottom line is the BMV stripped from me a piece of my identity. I don’t understand why, or more importantly, how they can do that without taking away my right to express myself.”

The Greenfield cop’s lawsuit says he considers his plate’s verbal pig-snort “an ironic statement of pride in his profession. As a police officer who has been called ‘pig’ by arrestees, he thought it was both humorous and also a label that he wears with some degree of pride,” the lawsuit states.

Due to the pending litigation, Gillespie cannot comment on it per his agency’s rules.

Waddell said in a statement: “Indiana is not the first state to see its PLP statutes challenged, as this has become a widespread topic of debate across the nation.” And the suspension is necessary “in order to protect Hoosier taxpayers from the considerable expense that these types of lawsuits bring.”

On Tuesday morning, Bob Modesto joked that the BMV possibly did him a favor by denying his wife’s plate because when he drives her vehicle he won’t feel so guilty while cruising into a fast food drive-through lane.

On Tuesday afternoon, though, Gillespie told me that both vanity plates for the Modestos will be renewed after his agency reconsidered their case and situation.

“The customer service representative may have exercised a bit too much caution,” Gillespie said.

There’s a happy ending after all. And a humorous one, too: The curious coincidence about the two vanity plates in question - “OINK” and “VEGAN UP.”



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