A few weeks ago a Romanian bought a personalized number plate from Sweden that seemed perfectly fine for Swedish Transport Agency is usually very vigilant when approving such plates.

However, this plate included a word that it is usually considered very offensive:

The car’s plates read “MUIE PSD”. According to the Romanian dictionary DEX, the first meaning of the term “muie”, which comes from the Romani language, is “mouth” and one of its derivate meanings is “to deceive”. However, the term is more commonly used as a swear, (..)

Since the target was the Romanian Social Democratic Party, the main party in power, (not a person), some argued that the plates should be allowed and removing them by the police is a limitation of freedom of expression.

Question: Does freedom of speech/expression cover offensive words against a political party?

  • Do you mean specifically in terms of Romanian (or some other) law? If not, then this may be difficult to answer in a non-opinion based way. – origimbo Aug 17 at 15:33
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    If you are asking about Romanian laws which protect freedom of speech, then this might be more of a law question. If you are asking about freedom of speech in general, then this question is primarily opinion-based because there is no globally accepted consensus on what freedom of speech actually means. – Philipp Aug 17 at 15:42
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    It's clear that somebody wanted a “MUIE PSD” plate, but after that it's fuzzy. Please specify whether the plate “MUIE PSD” was approved by the STA or not, and if it was approved, whether or not the plate ran into trouble with the police. Please also specify which nation's police. – agc Aug 17 at 18:02
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    @agc - yes, the plate was approved, but the owner is required to have the regular plates in the car along with all the papers that accompany both pairs of plates. There was no trouble with the policy until the owner entered Romania where the policy could understand the meaning of those 7 characters. Their validity was also confirmed by Sweden Embassy, although it mentioned that receiving country can decide to not allow them. – Alexei Aug 17 at 18:29
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    It looks like an unwarranted question to ask just based on that case. Probably the STA has no clue what that means in Romanian, due to lack of sufficient resources to discover the meaning of the plate before issuing it. Is there evidence they kept the license after someone complained? A better question to ask based on that is whether the EU countries usually check for the meaning of license plates in all members' states languages. (I bet they don't except for the widely spoken languages, and even that I suspect it's more by luck [knowledgeable employees] than design.) – Fizz Aug 17 at 21:05
up vote 13 down vote accepted

I'll admit I'm not up to date on Romania specific, but the purpose of Free Speech is to criticize public policy and politicians. Any government that does not allow citizens to use colorful language to criticizes political organizations but claims it respects Free Speech probably doesn't truly have free speech.

HOWEVER

Most license plates are issued by a government of some kind and are usually a government mechanic to identify the vehicle and authorize it to be on the road. Thus, license plates should be considered Government Speech and thus subject to Government censorship laws. A vanity plate is effectively paying for a specific pattern to appear on a plate/tag rather than a randomly generated one. Thus the Government has the right to refuse to endorse messages that are controversial in this nature and require a less offensive message to be created for your plate (or issue you a valid random plate, with no refund).

Even in the United States, one of the most liberal countries with respect to restricted speech laws, a license plate does not confer upon the car owner a license to exercise their free speech (pardon the pun) registry departments regularly refuse to issue vanity plates for obscene or offensive content in the message.

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    Do you have a source for "the purpose of Free Speech is to criticize public policy and politicians"? Most sources I've read are a lot more general. – origimbo Aug 17 at 15:40
  • Yes, clearly the Swedish authorities would have denied the plate, it they knew what it means (I am sure they have added it to their blacklist). – Alexei Aug 17 at 15:53
  • Mostly sourced from the principal of Constitutional Law, which is that the only entity that can be held guilty of a Constitutional Violation is the Government, not the citizenry. Thus, even if you are protesting a private entity, the government and only the government, is incapable of taking punitive action... however if you are employed by the company, they may take such action. – hszmv Aug 17 at 15:55
  • @origimbo on my last statement. – hszmv Aug 17 at 15:56
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    Sorry, I think you've misunderstood. I'm not questioning politicians versus private citizens, I'm questioning whether it's not protection from "the government" in general, including e.g. preventing action through the court system against protected speech (such as opinion in private libel trial). – origimbo Aug 17 at 17:59

The Romanian constitution has in Article 30:

(1) Freedom of expression of thoughts, opinions, or beliefs, and freedom of any creation, by words, in writing, in pictures, by sounds or other means of communication in public are inviolable.

Subject to

(6) Freedom of expression shall not be prejudicial to the dignity, honour, privacy of a person, and to the right to one's own image.

(7) Any defamation of the country and the nation, any instigation to a war of aggression, to national, racial, class or religious hatred, any incitement to discrimination, territorial separatism, or public violence, as well as any obscene conduct contrary to morality shall be prohibited by law.

Organisations including political parties do not have special protection.

Whether this is language is so offensive that it is "obscene conduct contrary to morality" is something only a court could decide. In the USA it would not be.

Of relevance was that a 2010 proposal to ban profanity on internet forums was not passed and largely ignored (wikipedia)

  • Yeah, but who knows what other laws Romania might have. Just not being prohibited by the constitution doesn't make them legal. US constitution doesn't prohibit spitting, but many local ordinances do. – Fizz Aug 17 at 21:13
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    But if the constitution said that the freedom to spit was inviolable, then a local ordinance prohibiting spitting would be unconstitutional. – Michael Kay Aug 17 at 21:50
  • @MichaelKay: how do you know how Romanian courts or their other laws interpret "obscene conduct contrary to morality"? I could well preclude obscenities on number plates. And even if they don't, it looks like (from the article linked by they OP) they can refuse to accept a car circulating with a foreign plate for any reason. This question was pretty misguided. – Fizz Aug 18 at 3:27
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    The Swedish embassy simultaneously said the plates are valid in all EU and that any [EU] country can decide which vehicle plates it allows on cars circulating on its territory... which is a funny notion of "valid" (except where not). Frankly that would have been a much better question. – Fizz Aug 18 at 3:33
  • @Fizz I know nothing about Romanian laws or courts, and my comment doesn't assume anything about them. I was pointing out that the relationship between a constitution and "local ordinances" isn't quite the way you described it, irrespective of the details of either. – Michael Kay Aug 18 at 7:45

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