A&A: Publishing a photo showing license plate numbers

Q: While walking across a parking lot at an elementary school site, I noticed a car that had been parked in the same place for several minutes. There were two 8 x 11 inched sized ”political messages” affixed to the back bumper of the car: 1 on each side of, and close to, the license plate.

The car was parked within 15 ft of a preschool classroom and directly across from a row of elementary school classrooms. Therefore, the placards would have been in the plain view of any and all people entering and leaving those classrooms.

My question is this: Must I ”edit out” the license plate before publishing a photo of the placards?

A: There is no law that specifically prohibits one from publishing another’s license plate.

As a very general matter, the publication of information about another will amount to an invasion of that person’s privacy only if

  1. The person had a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information,
  2. if the information is published in such a way so as to create a false and offensive impression about that person, or
  3. it is presented in such a way so to imply that the person with whom the license plate is associated is endorsing a product.

Because license plates are openly displayed on cars, one would have a very difficult time establishing any expectation of privacy with respect to their disclosure. (And this will be especially true when the car owner is doing something that draws particular attention to the car.)

And as long as you are depicting the license plate with respect to a story about that actual car (as opposed to, for example, using the car as an illustration of a similar car that was involved in something else), there will be little risk of invading he car owner’s privacy.

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.