Iraq War Vet Sues Michigan for Right to “INFIDEL” License Plate
A combat veteran of the Iraq war is suing Michigan for denying his application for a vanity license plate with a shortened version of the word INFIDEL on it. The state says the plate would be “offensive to good taste and decency,” but veteran Michael Matwyuk says that he and other vets “came to embrace their identity as ‘infidels’ in the eyes of their enemies.”
Now working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Matwyuk retired from the Army as a sergeant after 22 years of service. He saw combat in Fallujah in 2004-2005 and “sustained multiple injuries, including traumatic brain injury and hearing loss,” according to the complaint filed in federal court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The suit names two defendants: Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Michael Fildey, who runs the vanity plate program.
In November 2012 Matwyuk applied for a personalized license plate in his home state of Michigan, seeking to use the phrase “INF1DL,” after the online system rejected without explanation his first choice of “INFIDL.” Later informed that the plate would not be issued because it violated the “good taste or decency” requirement of the Motor Vehicle Code, Matwyuk asked the state to reconsider his request.
Admitting that “we have issued plates that encompass a wide range of religious sentiments,” the state replied that Matwyuk’s request crossed a line. “Where we draw the line is if the sentiment could be construed as offensive to the general public. In the case of infidel we believe it does carry an offensive connotation now because of the way it’s being used by radical elements.” An additional exchange of letters served only to confirm the decision.
According to Matwyuk’s complaint, Michigan has issued other vanity plates expressing religious beliefs, religious skepticism, and religious dissent, including one that reads: “HERETIC.”
Expanding on points made in his letters, Matwyuk describes the use of the term infidel by him and his fellow veterans:
“He and his fellow troops were constantly under attack by insurgent extremists whose word for the American soldiers was ‘infidel.’ Seeking to reclaim or reappropriate this term as a source of American pride and patriotism, Sergeant Matwyuk and other soldiers came to embrace their identity as ‘infidels.’ He and other American veterans proudly refer to themselves as ‘infidels’ as a reminder of the bond they share as survivors of a bloody war in a hostile part of the world.”
Citing the 2010 book Infidel by journalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, Matwyuk claims that many Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have tattooed the word on their bodies or sewn patches with the word on their uniforms.
The core of the lawsuit is Matwyuk’s claim that the state's “offensive to good taste and decency” restriction is vague and overbroad, arbitrary and discriminates on the basis of viewpoint.
“The ‘good taste and decency’ standard can be interpreted at the whim of officials in charge at any given moment and therefore it’s anybody’s guess what message will survive the review process,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “This subjectivity is exactly what our First Amendment was designed to guard against.”
Although Michigan Department of State spokesman Fred Woodhams declined to comment on the lawsuit, he told a reporter from WWJTV that “We believe we have a well-established, longstanding process that balances a person’s desire to express themselves with the department’s obligation, under state law, to not allow plates that may be considered offensive.”
To Learn More:
He’s an INFIDEL, and Proud of It (by Kevin Koeninger, Courthouse News Service)
Matwyuk v. Johnson (Complaint) (pdf)
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