Kari Overington was beating cancer and wanted to rub it in.
In late 2020, Overington bought a new SUV and decided to celebrate being cancer-free by splurging on a vanity plate. She reserved one on the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles’ website and then went down to a DMV office to pay the fee.
In February 2021, her new license plate arrived. She slapped it on her Toyota RAV4 and then stood back to appreciate her war cry.
Overington, 41, drove around without a problem for four months until a letter from the DMV came in the mail. She opened it: Officials were recalling her license plate. Since the “F” stood for a curse word, the plate was “offensive in nature” and “does not represent the State and the Division in a positive manner.”
Now, Overington is suing the head of the Delaware DMV, Jana Simpler, and two other government officials. In her suit, Overington said they violated her First Amendment right to free speech and asked a federal judge to order them to reinstate her vanity plate. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Andrews this week denied state officials’ motion to dismiss the suit, saying in his order that Overington raises a “significant constitutional issue.”
In an email to The Washington Post, a Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman said that, while DMV officials commiserate with the idea underlying Overington’s license plate, it nevertheless includes “obscenity, vulgarity, profanity, hate speech, or fighting words,” contrary to state policy.
“Unfortunately, the plaintiff’s license plate violates this policy, even though we appreciate and sympathize with the sentiments behind it,” he added.
In the fall of 2018, Overington was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, she said on her website dedicated to fighting the DMV. She got a double mastectomy in November of that year and started chemotherapy on New Year’s Eve. When her hair started falling out in January 2019, she preempted her enemy by shaving the rest of it off. Her fiance did the same in solidarity.
Overington’s treatments were interrupted in March 2019 when, after catching the flu, she collapsed, busting her scalp open, she wrote. She resumed chemo by the end of the month, finished in early June and started breast reconstruction within weeks, a process that would last more than 21/2 years.
“This has been a long journey and I’m not out of the woods,” she wrote, adding that if she remains cancer-free for five years, the odds of recurrence are low.
Fighting cancer beyond the rogue cells in her body has energized Overington. She and her fiance ran the Boston Marathon in 2021 during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, both dyeing their hair pink to drive home the point. Just before starting the race, they took a selfie. A slogan on the midsection of their jerseys implored people to “Defy cancer.”
Overington explained the “community of cancer warriors, cancer survivors and those that love them” to DMV officials in a July 2021 email, which was a reply to their letter informing her that they were revoking her license plate. She asked officials to reconsider, arguing the license plate was not obscene. Moreover, it had also spurred conversations between her and like-minded strangers who might never have met otherwise.
“My vanity plate receives positive feedback everywhere I go, and I have had more than a few deep conversations with complete strangers about my cancer and how cancer has touched their lives because of it,” she wrote in the email.
Secretary of the Department of Transportation Nicole Majeski replied that DMV staffers “approved your vanity plate in error” and since it contained “a perceived profanity,” it had to be recalled. A lawyer representing state officials would later note that Overington’s initial request for the license plate came in December 2020 during the first year of the pandemic, when DMV staff “were being stretched to their breaking point,” a stressor that led to the plate being “inadvertently approved.”
Overington said in court documents that she was “thrilled” when she got her license plate. She rushed to put it on her car, took a photo and then crowed about it on Facebook. She was “devastated” when she learned the DMV was taking it away.
On Thursday night, Overington told The Post that she plans to keep fighting for her FCANCER license plate.
“I got it as a celebration of my battle,” she said late Thursday in an online message, “and I think it’s important to fight for what you believe in, and I believe in the 1st Amendment.”