The Weird History Behind a Michigan Law Against Bumper Sticker Fraud

Are you really the proud parent of a kid at that school?

Image
Flickr/Cyclelicious

Earlier this week, the Michigan House of Representatives unanimously voted to repeal a bizarre and long-unenforced law that's been on the state's books since 1929. Section 3 of the Protection of Names and Emblems Act made it a misdemeanor, worth a fine of a hundred bucks, to display on your car "any emblem or insignia of any organization, association, fraternity, lodge, club or order" that you don't belong to.

Not actually a Boy Scout, one of the Knights of Columbus, or a Vietnam Vet? Technically speaking, in Michigan, it's been illegal to plaster stickers suggesting as much on your bumper.

The law itself is unbelievably broad – the entire motor vehicle provision was originally written as just one paragraph. And, obviously, words like "organization" and "association" are pretty slippery. Do you seriously belong to this crew? Do you have breast cancer, or are you supporting women who do? And of particular concern to Tom Leonard, the legislator who introduced this bill, do you actually play halfback for Brady Hoke's Wolverines? 'Cause that would be the literal interpretation of this guy.

Of course, no reasonable person riding in the car behind you is fooled by (or cares about) any of these things. And the law has been unenforced since an Appeals Court declared it unconstitutional in 1979 for its bludgeoning of free speech ("Assuming that prevention of petty frauds is indeed the statute's intent, its sweep is clearly overbroad").

So what were Michiganders thinking back in 1929, before the advent of slap-on magnetic ribbons and sports booster clubs and that weird stick-figure meme? The rest of the Protection of Names and Emblems Act focuses on "benevolent, humane, fraternal, or charitable" organizations, suggesting that the state didn't want you to pretend to be something like a firefighter, a cop, or an aid worker – one of those special roles in society that come with legitimate conveniences like waived speeding tickets or free parking.

As it turns out, the rare jerk-wad driver actually deals in this kind of deception, and not just back in 1929. The case that landed this law before a court in 1979 arose when a Michigan man was pulled over by a police officer for having some defective equipment. The officer noticed a sticker on the car for the Police Officers Association of Michigan. He asked the driver if either he or any member of his family was a policeman. The driver had to admit he had no connection to the police at all. And then he got a citation.

As with a lot of conduct on the road, plenty of things that are immoral aren't legitimately illegal. Now the Michigan state senate is due to consider Leonard's bill, an attempt to wipe this law off the books for good. If you live in Michigan, you should pretty much feel free now to go ahead and lie a little.

Hat tip to Transportation Nation.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.