KINGSFORD, Mich. (WWJ) - An Iraq War veteran is taking the state to court for the right to display a personalized license plate.
Northern Michigan resident Michael Matwyuk says the Michigan Department of State rejected his request for a plate carrying a shortened variation of the word “infidel,” because it was in bad taste and could offend people.
“They contended that this was an inappropriate term to put on a plate because of the fact that terrorists are using it,” Matwyuk told WWJ Newsradio 950′s Sandra McNeil.
Matwyuk, 57, said he and his fellow troops were constantly under attack by Muslim insurgents who called American soldiers “infidels.”
For him, he said, the term has taken on a special meaning.
“It’s certainly a term that the enemy used for us in a way, of course, to intimidate or whatever,” he said, “And, as a result, we really embraced it, and identified (with) it, and really rallied around it.”
“Terrorists are using it in the idea of death to infidels. That’s what they were saying to us, and that was pretty much my standing, that, yeah, we’re your enemy,” Matwyuk said.
Many soldiers have expressed this identity through tattoos, patches and clothing that bear the word infidel.
Matwyuk said the state’s rejection violates his First Amendment rights.
He filed suit Wednesday in Grand Rapids federal court with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“A message on a vanity license plate may be brief, but that doesn’t mean there are fewer constitutional protections,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, in a statement.
“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,” Korobkin said. “This subjectivity is exactly what our First Amendment was designed to guard against.”
Department of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said, he hasn’t yet seen the lawsuit and can’t comment specifically.
However, he said, “We believe we have a well-established, longstanding process that ballances a person’s desire to express themselves with the departments obligation, under state law, to not allow plates that may be considered offensive.”
Woodhams said there is a staff committee that reviews personalized plate requests.
Matwyuk, who lives in the Upper Peninsula community of Kingsford, rose to the rank of sergeant. He saw combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and sustained brain injuries and hearing loss.