American bureaucrats have refused a Fulham Football Club fan’s application for a personalised “Come on You Whites” number plate on the grounds that it could be deemed racist.
Long distance season ticket holder Jonathan Kotler, an academic at the University of Southern California, applied for the “COY-W” number plate after Fulham were promoted from the Championship last season. The club were relegated back to the Championship earlier this month.
He was astonished when the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) rejected his application on the grounds that because the letters COY-W stood for “Come on You Whites”, the proposed number plate “can have racial connotations”.
Mr Kotler, 73, a professor specialising in constitutional rights and media law, is now suing the DMV, claiming the refusal breaches his freedom of speech rights under the first amendment of the US constitution.
Because his lawsuit also calls for a blanket ban on the DMW being allowed to refuse plates on “taste and decency” grounds, it could potentially overturn how things have worked in California since 1973, when the department won a court ruling to stop a male driver getting the number plate EZ LAY.
“You can’t allow bureaucrats to make decisions that are fundamental to what it means to be an American, and our free speech is one of those things,” said Mr Kotler. “When the government starts to infringe on our rights, that’s when the individual citizen must speak up.”
Despite being born in New Jersey, Mr Kotler has been a Fulham fan for decades, ever since he visited Craven Cottage and watched the team play.
He regularly travels from California to attend matches in London, catching an 11-hour flight to get back to his university in time to teach students on Tuesday.
He applied for his personalised number plate after Fulham’s promotion-winning 2017-18 season, but in June 2018 received a letter from the DMV saying the application had been refused because it carried “connotations offensive to good taste and decency”.
Mr Kotler demanded a review and submitted a series of documents proving how “Come on You Whites” was just a phrase used by Fulham fans to express their support. The documents now form Exhibit 2 of Mr Kotler’s lawsuit.
They showed that Fulham’s official Twitter hashtag is #COYW and the club’s Pakistani-American owner Shahid Khan likes to use the phrase in his letters, and also included a report by US media outlet NBC stating: “Newly promoted Fulham has already shelled out nearly $50 million this summer as the Whites look to secure Premier League status.”
The DMW, however, was unmoved and in July Mr Kotler received a letter telling him: “We are remaining with our original determination that the configuration is unacceptable. ‘Come on You Whites’ can have racial connotations.”
“It’s just a shirt colour,” an indignant Mr Kotler told the BBC. “The people at the DMV are either extra thick or very PC.”
Mr Kotler, whose lawsuit explains that “Fulham is one of many sports teams that is described by the colour of its uniforms”, added that he was shocked by the refusal.
“This is crazy,” he said. “It was the furthest thing from my mind that anyone would object to it. Many clubs in Britain are known by their colour – the Blues, the Clarets. Nobody thought the Liverpool Reds were communists.”
Mr Kotler is being supported by the libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation, which accused the DMV of an “attempt to make itself the speech police”.
A foundation spokesperson said: “You can call Jon a sports fan or a first amendment expert, but the DMV’s misguided efforts to regulate licence plates have misbranded Jon as a racist.”
The DMV has said it does not comment on pending legal cases, but in one of its letters to Mr Kotler, an official wrote: “I am sure you can appreciate how difficult it is to balance an individual’s constitutional right to free speech and expression while protecting the sensibilities of all segments of our population.”
Los Angeles Magazine reported that California’s DMV uses a 44-page document entitled Common Personalised Licence Plate Configuration Denials as the starting point for deciding what is and isn’t acceptable.
When confronted by an unfamiliar word or series of letters, DMW officials may also use online resources like Google Translate, Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary to work out what it means.
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