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A former Army sergeant is suing the state of Michigan alleging it denied him a personalized license plate with a variation of the word “infidel,” violating his free speech rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in Grand Rapids on behalf of a Michael Matwyuk, a 57-year-old combat veteran from Kingsford, Mich., who said he views the word “infidel” as a badge of pride.
Matwyuk, said he deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with an engineer detachment and was hurt in Fallujah, according to the lawsuit. He said he and fellow troops were constantly under attack by insurgents who called U.S. soldiers “infidels” as an insult.
“We embraced it, we joked about it, we laughed about it, we called each other ‘infidel,’” he told Army Times. “We’re infidels, we’re absolutely that and we were there who did not subscribe to the doctrine or belief system [the enemy] was trying to impose. We don’t subscribe to terrorism, Shariah law and oppression. We are champions of freedom, and if that makes us infidels good for me and good for the rest of us.”
Matwyuk told Army Times he tried to order a personalized plate that said “INFDL,” and when the state’s website would not allow it, “INF1DL.”
But the state sent him a letter saying the plate “could not be issued because it might carry a connotation offensive to good taste or decency,” in violation of state law, according to the lawsuit.
While the state allows plates that express various religious sentiments, it does not allow plates with offensive connotations. In a letter to Matwyuk, a department manager allegedly told him that the word infidel can be offensive “because of the way it’s being used by radical elements.”
Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State, said he could not comment on specifics of the lawsuit because the Department of State had not yet reviewed it.
“We believe we have a well-established, long-standing process that balances a person’s desire to express themselves with the department’s obligation under state law to not allow plates that might be considered offensive,” Woodhams told Army Times.
Matwyuk said the word simply means non-believer and is as offensive as the word atheist. He said he was not trying to offend anyone, and to him, the state’s argument that the word might be considered offensive doesn’t add up.
“It was because people overseas are saying, ‘Death to infidels.’ So who are we going to offend? Them?” Matwyuk said. “They tried to kill me for a year, so I’m not worried about offending them. I already did.”
The lawsuit argues that it has become common for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to “proudly embrace their identity as ‘infidels,’” by tattooing the word on their bodies or by wearing patches and clothing bearing the word.
“As a way to cope, we decided to take this word — meant to hurt and demean us — as our own,” Matwyuk said in a statement distributed by the ACLU. “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.”
The ACLU lawsuit alleges that Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and section manager Michael Fildey, violated Matwyuk’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. It argues state law 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 Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “That is clearly unfair and unconstitutional.”
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