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Nevada lawsuit challenges state's rejection of 'WTF Party' name

Posted at 8:23 PM, Aug 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-01 23:23:20-04

LAS VEGAS — A man who was told by the state of Nevada that he couldn't register the name "WTF Party" for political candidates is suing election officials, claiming his free speech rights were violated.

The Nevada secretary of state "has prevented the WTF Party from qualifying as a minor political party based on political speech," the lawsuit says.

Plaintiff Jeffrey Berns was told his proposed party name represents "an acronym that commonly serves as a substitute for a well-known profanity."

Documents filed Monday with the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Reno include a state rejection letter that inserts an asterisk instead of the "F".

Attorney Rick Hsu, who represents Berns, said in an email Thursday that a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholds the right to form political parties.

Hsu declined to comment further about the lawsuit, where the proposed party would stand on the political spectrum, or what candidates it might field.

The lawsuit calls for Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske to add the WTF Party to the eight parties currently on the roster.

Members of four parties -- Democratic, Republican, Independent American and Libertarian -- routinely appear on ballots in Nevada. The secretary of state lists four other eligible minor parties: Nevada Green, Alliance, Transhumanist and Middleground.

A telephone number provided by Berns on filing papers did not accept voice messages. He listed an address in Sparks.

State elections chief Wayne Thorley told Berns in a May letter that his party name "may be offensive to a substantial portion of the electorate" and might "convey contempt for the election process in the same way that a `Who Cares Party,' an `Apathy Party' or a `Roll-the-Dice Party' might communicate disdain."

Berns' lawyers insisted in responses that the party name had no hidden meaning.

"The letters are not an acronym or abbreviation," they said. "While we appreciate that some people may infer additional meaning from these letters, that is not the purpose ... nor are the letters `W' `T' and `F' themselves offensive or profane."

Spokeswomen for Cegavske and state Attorney General Aaron Ford, who will defend the state in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

The 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Hsu cited involved an Illinois case known as Norman v. Reed, about a party's effort to expand and reach out of Chicago into surrounding Cook County.

Justices affirmed a constitutional right to create and develop new political parties and said restrictions must be "narrowly drawn to advance a state interest of compelling importance."

The Supreme Court has never ruled whether a state can prohibit a political party from using a profanity in its name, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

He noted the Supreme Court has protected profane speech in the past, including the "F word."

In 2017, the nation's highest court unanimously ruled that the refusal to register the name of an Asian-American rock band known as "The Slants," violated the First Amendment.

In the Nevada case, "The question seems to be just about the name," said Ian Bartrum, a professor at Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I'm not sure about making the state register a profane party name, or printing up ballots," Bartrum said.