Heather Morijah thought it would be cute to have a personalized license plate on her silver Prius that was almost identical to the one on her partner's blue Prius. He had IMPCH W.
"This has been literally one of the most significant experiences of my life," she says. "It's been absolutely humbling to see how many people were willing to go to bat for me on this issue."
So last fall, Morijah, who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, paid the $25 extra for vanity plates to get MPEACHW.
The plates arrived, no problem.
"For a while there, we had blue and silver Prius's with matching Impeach Bush license plates roaming around Rapid City," she says.
"We both feel very strongly about this administration for a large number of reasons. The big number one would be leading us into an imperialistic occupation in Iraq to get their oil, and lying to the American people at the expense of many American lives and many Iraqi lives. And number two, the horrifying damage they're inflicting on the environment in this country and in the world."
Then on April 18, Morijah got a letter from the South Dakota DMV.
The agency "is in receipt of a written complaint about your personalized plates," the letter says. "With this complaint I am sorry to inform you that the set of plates MPEACHW are being recalled. . . . You will have 10 days from the date of receiving this letter to surrender the plates."
Morijah says she called up the DMV right away. "I just asked them to fax me a copy of the person's letter with the name blacked out. They wouldn't it give it to me," she says. "I asked them for a list of all the vanity plates they'd issued in the last year, and they wouldn't give me that. And I asked for a list of the vanity plates they had recalled, and I couldn't get that, either."
So Morijah called Jennifer Ring, the executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas.
Ring told her not to hand her over her plates and urged Morijah to speak to the press.
Morijah, a conservation organizer at the Sierra Club, took the advice and contacted the Rapid City Journal.
Staff writer Kevin Woster  broke the story on May 3.
At that point, the DMV was laying on the horn.
"I'm following the letter of the law," DMV director Deb Hillmer told Woster. "It's offensive to someone and not in good taste and decency. And the plates are the property of the state of South Dakota."
Hillmer warned in that article that if Morijah didn't surrender the plates, the state might sic law enforcement on her to get them.
The article drew instant attention.
"It was a crazy frenzy," recalls Morijah. The Associated Press picked it up. CNN did a story on it. And it was all over the blogosphere, she says.
Her phones were ringing nonstop.
"I literally only received one call that was not supportive, and that was from Rapid City," she says. "He told me perhaps my name should be pariah, not Morijah."
One of her favorite calls came from Pennsylvania, she says, where a man offered to send her a check for $19.84 in memory of George Orwell.
The ACLU's Ring then faxed over a letter on May 4 to Paul Kinsman, secretary of Revenue and Regulation, which oversees the DMV.
"Her opinion may not be shared by everyone in the United States or in South Dakota," Ring wrote. "Regardless, her political comments and criticism are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Article 4, Section 5, of the South Dakota Constitution, and the state is not permitted to censor that protected speech."
Ring pointed out that "political speech such as 'impeach George Bush' is indisputably not 'indecent' or 'vulgar' in any respect. It may offend some citizens of South Dakota, but that is not a valid basis for the State to censor pure political speech."
On May 7, the DMV pulled a U-turn.
Hillmer herself called up Morijah to tell her the news that the state would not be recalling the plates.
"She was very polite," says Morijah.
And Secretary Kinsman issued a press release stating, "After reviewing case law on this issue, we have determined that the plate will not be recalled," according to Woster in his follow up for the Rapid City Journal .
Morijah reflects back on the incident. "This has been literally one of the most significant experiences of my life," she says. "It's been absolutely humbling to see how many people were willing to go to bat for me on this issue." She is especially grateful to the ACLU, she says, and has newfound respect for its clout—and its commitment.
Morijah hopes that some good can come from the kerfuffle.
"This particular issue has been resolved," she says. "But I hope the momentum this has created continues. And not just on the free speech issue, but also on going forward with removing this incredibly harmful administration."
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.
© 2007 The Progressive