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Nevada Supreme Court on Reference Works with Reader-Generated (and Largely Unedited) Content:

The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicle refused William Junge's request for a personalized license plate that read HOE; the DMV reasoned that "HOE was slang for 'whore.'" (Junge said it was short for Tahoe, and part of his overall Tahoe theme for his car: "Although Junge would have preferred TAHOE for his plate message, he settled on HOE because his first choice was unavailable. For his plate background, Junge initially selected the Lake Tahoe panoramic setting to adorn his 1999 Chevy Tahoe.")

The Nevada Supreme Court, in DMV v. Junge, reversed the denial of the plate, but its reasoning goes beyond the surprisingly substantial but rather frivolous field of License Plate Law:

[B]y its own admission, DMV based its decision solely on the Urban Dictionary. Moreover, DMV revealed a policy of only consulting Urban Dictionary to determine if a word is inappropriate or offensive.

Urban Dictionary is predominantly an online dictionary, although a paper version based on the online content was published in 2005. See http://www.urbandictionary.com/book.php (last visited June 10, 2009). Its definitions are user contributed and are generally anonymous. There is no limit to the number of definitions that a user can contribute.

Since definitions are user contributed, they can be personal to the user and do not always reflect generally accepted definitions for words. See generally http://www.urbandictionary.com/tos.php (last visited June 10, 2009). In fact, Urban Dictionary acknowledges that "[i]ts content is frequently presented in a coarse and direct manner that some may find offensive." See http://www.urbandictionary.com/tos.php (last visited June 10, 2009). Moreover, Urban Dictionary readily admits that it "cannot control all [c]ontent posted by third parties to the [w]ebsite, and does not guarantee the accuracy, integrity or quality of such [c]ontent." Id. Furthermore, Urban Dictionary concedes that it "does not and cannot review all [c]ontent posted to or created by users accessing the [w]ebsite." Id. Thus, Urban Dictionary allows, if not encourages, users to invent new words or attribute new, not generally accepted meanings to existing words.

We acknowledge that the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the use of [Jonathon] Green's Contemporary Dictionary of Slang (1985) to review personalized license plates in McMahon v. Iowa Dept. of Transp., 522 N.W.2d 51, 55-56 (Iowa 1994). Nonetheless, we conclude that this case is distinguishable because Urban Dictionary allows for anonymous, user contributed content. Moreover, without any review of the definitions posted on Urban Dictionary, there is a substantial danger that the definitions will not be generally accepted. Therefore, the DMV's practice risks prohibiting words or phrases based on meanings that are not commonly known or recognized, even as slang terms.

An interesting — and, I think, correct — conclusion, and one that's relevant to other user-generated references such as Wikipedia. As I've noted before, for tangential and uncontroversial matters, Wikipedia may be quite good enough. Government employees' time isn't unlimited, and tracking down authoritative sources to demonstrate the colorfulness of Polish boxer Andrew Golota — to give an example from a Seventh Circuit case that cited Wikipedia to support such an assertion — is probably not the best ways to spend that time. But for something controversial and important, it seems to me that Wikipedia and other reader-generated sources that aren't edited by known and trustworthy authorities should not suffice.

Note that I'm not concerned here about outright lies and manipulations. It seems likely that people who contribute to the Urban Dictionary contribute usages that they themselves have observed. And in fact it's possible that "hoe" (and not just "ho") is seen by some or even many people as slang for "whore," unless some other meaning — say, gardening-related — is visible from context. But all the entry in the Urban Dictionary means (unless the court and I misunderstood the way the Dictionary works) is that one person has claimed that a word has a particular slang meaning, and that the site operators didn't block or remove the submission; it doesn't mean that anyone checked to see whether the definition is in fact common, rare, or even purely idiosyncratic with the submitter and his small circle of friends.

Guest101:
The DMV should have consulted Judge Evans's decision in Murphy v. Baker, 406 F.3d 857, 858 n.1 (7th Cir. 2005) ("The trial transcript quotes Ms. Hayden as saying Murphy called her a snitch bitch 'hoe.' A 'hoe,' of course, is a tool used for weeding and gardening. We think the court reporter, unfamiliar with rap music (perhaps thankfully so), misunderstood Hayden's response. We have taken the liberty of changing 'hoe' to 'ho,' a staple of rap music vernacular as, for example, when Ludacris raps 'You doin' ho activities with ho tendencies.'")
7.9.2009 1:00pm
rosetta's stones:
The Nevada DMV is jiving us with cosmik debris. It's not "hoe"... it's " ho' "... with no "e"... and with an apostrophe.
7.9.2009 1:01pm
Stephen C. Carlson (www):
The Urban Dictionary also has a voting mechanism, which, imperfect as it may be, does attempt to provide some degree of checking the definition.
7.9.2009 1:04pm
ShelbyC:
Why do we even bother? How 'bout, in a free country, letting people put whatever they want?
7.9.2009 1:07pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
ShelbyC: I'm not wild about the license plate restrictions, but note that people are free to put up whatever they want on their bumpers. Nevada, together with many states, just doesn't want to participate in producing such material, and having it publicly displayed as part of what is after all a government-issued license document.
7.9.2009 1:10pm
Aaron Denney (mail):
In terms of accuracy, consider their entries for ACLU.

(There are some reasonable entries, but they're buried in the back.)
7.9.2009 1:17pm
Frater Plotter:
In some, you can't register your car without getting insurance first (or paying a hefty deposit). In effect, your license plate certifies that you have car insurance. Why not go one step further and simply have license plates issued by licensed insurance companies instead of by the state?

Then customers who are offended by a company that issues a plate that says "HOE" could simply choose not to do business with that company. And instead of the old joke about the cop trying to draw the little cowboy when ticketing a Wyoming car, the cop would have to draw Snoopy or the Geico gecko instead.
7.9.2009 1:21pm
Frater Plotter:
In some states, that is.
7.9.2009 1:22pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Frater Plotter,

I'd like to see that extended to the actual licensing of drivers. I bet insurance companies would do a better job of both testing drivers and being friendly about it.
7.9.2009 1:31pm
TomH (mail):
Not to be confused with 'Hoe'-cakes. A sort of pancake made with corn flour.
7.9.2009 1:34pm
epeeist:
Interesting, I agree with the decision as far as it goes (as summarized above, I haven't read the whole case).

I do have a problem, however, with some limits (objecting to some four-letter words I can see...) on plates even based on "valid" dictionary definitions. Let's say "HO" was objectionable - until you find out that's the person's name. "HOOKER" similarly. Is one to only be allowed a problematic license plate if you can prove a legitimate purpose? I can understand on one level, on another, if e.g. "HOOKER" is offensive, it's no less offensive to other drivers who merely see the plate and don't know the driver.

In another context, I recently came across an academic reference to someone with the last name "Kundt". Is only someone who can prove a "legitimate" interest entitled to that plate, or do you prohibit it to everyone?

I don't have an answer, I would think that an argument based on traffic safety, possible road rage, distraction to other drivers, would justify content-specific limits even with strict scrutiny - but then the person is presumably free to stick on "offensive" bumper stickers saying the same thing...the above example, "I'm a Kundt" springs to mind!
7.9.2009 1:43pm
[insert here] delenda est:
Soronel Haetir, that's as fine an idea as I have heard in a while.
And you forgot to mention that standards of driver education pretty much couldn't be lower anyway, from my experience in (mainly) DC, Virgina and California :)
7.9.2009 1:44pm
Kazinski:
Does the Nevada Supreme Court have to manage every little thing that goes on in that state. I would think there should be an "abuse of discretion" rather than "best practices" standard when reviewing ministerial functions like that.

Unless of course a personalized license plate is fundamental right, which would make sense in California, but not so much in Nevada.
7.9.2009 1:47pm
Smooth, Like a Rhapsody (mail):
I assume "Ho Ho Ho" would be okay, though, even if it was on a car owned by a thrice-divorced guy.
7.9.2009 2:04pm
NowMDJD (mail):
I would think the police power of the state would allow it to prevent display on or near public highways that would of material that would likely be distracting to drivers. In this spirit I would add to objectionable license plates a ban on radio advertisements that feature car horns.
7.9.2009 2:06pm
troll_dc2 (mail):
The Nevada Supreme Court's decision was labeled as an "Order of Affirmance." Does that mean that it will not be published?
7.9.2009 2:16pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Me, I'd do away with personalized licenses entirely. The state offers them mostly to get a little extra cash for the DMV, but the only purpose of the license plate should be to identify the car. You can do that perfectly adequately with the state-issued number. Tat's better, in fact, because it makes keeping the database a lot easier.
7.9.2009 2:18pm
Dave N (mail):
troll_dc2,

That is correct. This is an unpublished decision. In fact, the link EV supplied is to the ACLU of Nevada's website and not the Nevada Supreme Court's.
7.9.2009 2:25pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
If you walk down to the local bookstore and buy any printed dictionary of coarse words, the only reason that would be superior to an online anonymous source is that the qualifications of the editor could be established. If there is no effort to establish that qualification, I don't see that as a known superior source.

A printed work with an editor and research staff is inherently limited by the reach of that staff and their methods of research. The unedited, online source would have the better reach, into areas and subcultures that the more organized research staffs have not yet discovered. Even though it is anonymous, someone thought an entry in the online source was an offensive word. If the objective is to keep untoward words, or hints of those words off license plates, the online source would be the better reference.

The problem isn't the use of one source or another, the problem is the reliance on any source without judgment or other evaluation.
7.9.2009 2:35pm
Kirk:
epeeist,

I seem to recall that exact situation arising here in WA, way back in the pre-web era: the local plant manager of the (then) Hooker Chemical plant was denied the use of HOOKER on a vanity plate. I don't remember if the state relented or not.
7.9.2009 2:55pm
wm13:
The New Yorker had a cartoon a few years back in which a standard issue sullen teenager is presented with the well-known poem (or perhaps the picture) "Man with a Hoe." Needless to say, she can't get past the title.

Which kind of supports the Urban Dictionary's usage--or maybe not, if you interpret the cartoon as an uncool white teenager with no real knowledge of urban vocabulary.
7.9.2009 3:01pm
Mark N. (www):
I see a bit of a difference between Urban Dictionary and a carefully consulted Wikipedia article. The latter is still editable by anyone, but if you read it judiciously---making sure that it's been edited by more than one person, that it cites sources for any non-obvious assertions, and (from the history) that it wasn't just massively revamped 5 minutes ago, it usually represents something close to a consensus of the well-known sources on the subject.

It really depends on what you're looking for, though. If I want an overview of viewpoints on a subject, I often find Wikipedia better than authoritative sources, because authors of books and journal articles are not always very good about charitably summarizing, or even mentioning at all, contrary views (or criticisms of their approach). On the other hand, if you already know which viewpoint you're interested in, an article or book by one of its foremost exponents would indeed be a better place to go than Wikipedia.
7.9.2009 3:17pm
troll_dc2 (mail):
Dave N, thank you. Now the next question is: Why is this an unpublished decision? Has there been another decision with the same analysis? If so, why is it not cited? Or does this ruling advance the law? I believe that it does the latter. The mere fact that EV finds the decision noteworthy suggests to me that it meets the standard criteria for official publication.

As a former employee of a legal publishing company, I have no hesitation in advocating official publication here. I wonder whether the Nevada Supreme Court has a method for recommending that unpublished decisions be published.
7.9.2009 3:28pm
troll_dc2 (mail):
I should add that the decision distinguishes a published opinion and provides guidance to other jurisdictions that may confront this issue.
7.9.2009 4:42pm
ShelbyC:

I'm not wild about the license plate restrictions, but note that people are free to put up whatever they want on their bumpers. Nevada, together with many states, just doesn't want to participate in producing such material, and having it publicly displayed as part of what is after all a government-issued license document.


Well, seems kinda wastefull spending a lot of money preventing someone from putting something on their license plate that they can just put next to it.

And aren't they creating a public forum?
7.9.2009 4:58pm
John M. Perkins (mail):

And you forgot to mention that standards of driver education pretty much couldn't be lower anyway, from my experience in (mainly) DC, Virgina and California :)


Hmm, my driver education classroom was in the staff lounge of Kann's, a department store in Arlington, Virginia. It was an excellent class, maybe the best ever from that building.

;-)
7.9.2009 5:04pm
A.S.:
<i>The Urban Dictionary also has a voting mechanism, which, imperfect as it may be, does attempt to provide some degree of checking the definition.</i>

I don't think this comment has gotten enough attention.

The Court writes: "Since definitions are user contributed, they can be personal to the user and do not always reflect generally accepted definitions for words."

But the voting mechanism shows this to be incorrect - if a particular definition does reflect a "generally accepted" definition, it will have a lot of positive votes and relatively few negative votes.

In the case of the Urban Dictionary definition of the word "hoe" [I would link, but apparently the VC software doesn't allow it], the first definition (of several), which pertains to the vulgar reference the DMV was worried about, has 3363 positive votes and only 937 negative votes. This mitigates the problem the court identified: "without any review of the definitions posted on Urban Dictionary, there is a substantial danger that the definitions will not be generally accepted". There IS, in fact, review of the definitions posted on Urban Dictionary, by the users themselves. An appropriate understanding and use of this review mechanism by DMV workers would lessen the danger that the DMV would use posted definitions that are not generally accepted.

Accordingly, I don't think the Court's opinion is well informed or persuasive.
7.9.2009 5:44pm
Careless:
7.9.2009 6:28pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Consider the following non-personalized plate issued by California in the early 1990s: 2WLN269.

Nick
7.9.2009 7:05pm
Grigor:
For what it is worth, California no longer approves plates with the combination "69" unless the vehicle is a 1969 model.
7.9.2009 7:32pm
Porkchop:
John M. Perkins wrote:



And you forgot to mention that standards of driver education pretty much couldn't be lower anyway, from my experience in (mainly) DC, Virgina and California :)

Hmm, my driver education classroom was in the staff lounge of Kann's, a department store in Arlington, Virginia. It was an excellent class, maybe the best ever from that building.


For those who don't know, the Kann's department store building now houses the George Mason University School of Law. What are you saying John?
7.9.2009 10:42pm
Kingsley Browne (mail):
Assuming that the state has a valid interest in prohibiting personalized tags that would likely be construed as vulgar by a substantial number of people, an assumption that I don't believe Eugene was challenging (i.e., I took the issue to be whether "hoe" could be prohibited in addition to "ho" or "ho'"), then the court's decision strikes me as silly. I would think that regardless of the authoritativeness of some source that the state invoked, the state could prohibit license plates that said "fuk," "phuc", "phuc yieu," "shyt," "kunt," "Godd suks," etc.
7.10.2009 10:34am
A.S.:
The link A.S. wanted

Hmmmm. I got an error message when I tried to post, and blamed it on the link. I must have screwed up in some other way. Thanks.
7.10.2009 11:24am

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