Oregon's no NO ZOG zone

Until very recently you probably didn't know what ZOG stood for. I didn't. But you might now if you've been keeping up with local news. It's the acronym for Zionist Occupied Government, defined by Wikipedia as "an antisemitic conspiracy theory which holds that Jews secretly control a given country, while the formal government is a puppet regime." We can thank James Larry Marr, 56, of Springfield, Ore., for the lesson. Seems that Mr. Marr was parked in Phoenix during the April 26 demonstration against the local "National Socialist Movement" (and the tiny counter-counter-demonstration supporting the NSM), and that someone there complained to Salem about his vanity license plate: "NO ZOG."

The newspaper coverage about the state's subsequent decision to confiscate the plate included these two sentences: "Marr's request had slipped through last year because nobody recognized the reference. Since it was pointed out, the committee agreed it was objectionable."

So not long ago, nobody at the DMV knew enough to be offended. Sure is lucky for us that they do now, isn't it? And that we've now been lifted from our ignorance, so that we can be offended with them?

Does anyone else find this weird?

Most of us are proud of how the U.S. Bill of Rights' First Amendment protects free expression. Oregon's constitutional protection is even stronger: No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right. (Article 1, Section 8). I checked to see if there was an additional clause that said, "except in those cases when the opinion being expressed is hateful, deluded or otherwise lame." There wasn't.

To muddy this conversation a little, legal opinion is mixed on the question of whether license plates deserve free speech protections. But if we're as committed as we say we are to basic civil liberties, I'm not sure that technical point matters.

Most of us, I think, hold free speech as a high value. Very few of us would say it should have no limitations. But a basic grasp of modern history should caution us about those limitations, and how they have a way of growing. We shouldn't be in the business of curbing anyone's free expression unless it poses a likely and identifiable danger greater than the violation of our constitutional rights.

In the enduringly famous example, it's fine to ban yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, because the prospective danger is obvious. In the real world, this principle comes up when neo-Nazis want a permit to march in a Jewish suburb like Skokie, Ill. Some argue that the chance of violence is significant enough to trump the right to freely assemble and march.

From there the danger argument gets more subtle. What if the license plate sends curious youngsters off to Google up a lode of white supremacist propaganda and melts their brains? I'd need to see some cold data from the real world before I started worrying about that. My experience is that young people searching for their way are much more attracted to strange stuff we try to suppress than strange stuff we discuss with them. If I were Mr. Marr and looking for followers, I'd be delighted to have my license plate confiscated so publicly by the state.

There's no claim in the article that seeing NO ZOG on a license plate would hurt anyone. Instead it says that "requests for personalized plates are denied if they may be viewed as objectionable." Objectionable is another word I haven't been able to find in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or Article I of Oregon's. But if we're going to start filtering allowable expression according to what's objectionable, then the people in charge better get cracking.

Because I object to six-miles-per-gallon civilianized military vehicles cruising to the 7-11 and back home for a dozen eggs and a six-pack of beer. I object to the wearing of American flag lapel pins by public figures who've taken our country to bloody, bankrupting wars, and who've helped the few amass great wealth at the expense of the many. I object to the relentless advertising of food and beverages that trash our kids' health. I object to the sudden roar of a snowmobile when I'm cross-country skiing deep in the forest. I object to the toxins that Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage inject into the national bloodstream on a daily basis. And I object when a committee in Salem turns thumbs down on vanity license plates that they suspect might cause someone somewhere some heartburn.

Don't get me started.

A moronic license plate message, on the other hand, is out of my life the moment he turns off the road or I do.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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