KINGSFORD - A Kingsford man who was a combat soldier during the Iraq war is suing to get a personalized license plate carrying a shortened variation of the word "infidel."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of the U.S. Army veteran whose attempts to acquire a personalized license plate that includes a variation of the word "infidel" were unconstitutionally rejected by the Secretary of State for being "offensive to good taste and decency."
"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. "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. This subjectivity is exactly what our First Amendment was designed to guard against."
Michael Matwyuk, 57, of Kingsford, is a retired U.S. Army sergeant who was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005 at the height of hostilities in that country.
He sustained injuries and hearing loss during combat.
He and his fellow troops were constantly under attack by insurgents who called American soldiers "infidels."
Sgt. Matwyuk and other soldiers came to embrace their identity as "infidels" and proudly refer to themselves as "infidels" as a reminder of the bond they share. Many soldiers have expressed this identity through tattoos, patches and clothing that bear the word, ACLU of Michigan officials said.
In late 2012, Sgt. Matwyuk hoped to join others in expressing his identity as an Army veteran who served in Iraq by acquiring a personalized license plate through the Secretary of State's website.
He selected the Iraq War Veteran service plate and typed in several variations of the word "infidel" to check the plate's availability.
Sgt. Matwyuk was told that his first selection, "INFIDL," was not available. He said that the selection was likely already on a list of prohibited terms.
He then typed in "INF1DL" and his order was accepted. However, he was later informed that his license could not be issued because it might carry a connotation offensive to good taste or decency in violation of the Motor Vehicle Code.
"They felt is was inflammatory or inappropriate," he said. "It's inflammatory towards Islamic extremists, but I'm not worried about offending them."
"As American soldiers in Iraq, we were called 'infidels' on a daily basis. As a way to cope, we decided to take this word, meant to hurt and demean us, as our own," said Sgt. Matwyuk. "It's a point of pride and patriotism that many of us identify with, just as we would identify with the word 'soldier.' This license plate is simply an expression of my service as an Iraqi combat veteran."
Sgt. Matwyuk said he first contacted State Senator Tom Casperson's office, but they were unable to help.
"That's when I contacted the ACLU," he said.
In its lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, the ACLU argues that the state statute governing personalized license plates is unconstitutionally overbroad, vague and content-based, meaning it allows some words, but denies others based solely on their message.
"The state is essentially telling residents you have a platform to express your identity, religion, sense of humor or political ideology, unless we don't like it," said Korobkin. "That is clearly unfair and unconstitutional."
In addition to Korobkin, Sgt. Matwyuk is represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director.
Sgt. Matwyuk works as the Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator for the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain.