AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine motorists could be in for more eye-popping messages on the license plates of the cars ahead of them thanks to a 2015 law change that loosens the rules on what a vehicle’s plate can display.
The change means messages that were previously deemed too profane or offensive may now be allowed, according to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who has the say over what goes on a state license plate.
What messages remain banned? For one, “No fighting words,” Dunlap said, explaining that when it comes to vanity plates, states have been facing increasing lawsuits from motorists who say their right to free speech is getting squelched.
Consider an ongoing court battle in Indiana, where a police officer is suing the state for refusing his request for the vanity plate “0INK.” The state had previously issued the plate, but refused the officer a renewal for the third time. A state court ruled in favor of the police officer, but the state has since appealed that decision to the federal circuit court. In the meantime, Indiana stopped taking new vanity plate requests.
In Maine, the law changed after the state rejected a request from a breast cancer survivor for the plate “BQQBS.” The woman had asked for the plate in the state’s breast cancer awareness plate series, which features a pink ribbon.
“It started a broader conversation in the office, and we were talking with the attorney general’s office, and we spoke with the Civil Liberties Union about it, and what we discovered is we were on really, really thin ice constitutionally in being the language police,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap said that if the state were sued, it was clear that in some cases an individual’s right to free speech was going to trump the state’s interest in protecting others from messages considered offensive.
A court case in New Hampshire — where the state recalled the plate “COPSLIE,” but had to allow it after a lawsuit — helped prompt the change in Maine law, Dunlap said.
“We needed clarity in the law as to what we should decline and why,” he said.
Language in the law that allowed the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to reject a plate with “obscene, contemptuous, profane or prejudicial” messages was deleted.
Dunlap said the state’s policy now is — when pressed — to reject only messages that are considered a racial slur or are clearly discriminatory, as well as language that demonstrates hate or encourages violence or other illegal activities.
“This takes us back to the fighting words clause, or shouting fire in a crowded theater,” Dunlap said.
For example, plates with messages considered hateful, such as “BLKBTCH” — which is currently on a black Dodge Ram pickup and will be revoked by the state this year — won’t be allowed in the future, but other messages once banned, such as “BQQBS,” will be, Dunlap said. Also going on the banned list is “WHTBTCH.”
Plates that suggest a false association with a public institution or are duplicative continue to be banned under the new language in the law.
In all, 5,975 plate messages are on the state’s banned list, which is a compilation of banned messages from a number of states and dates back several decades. It’s the result of decisions made by secretaries of state over the years.
More than 101,000 vanity plates have been allowed in Maine.
It is unknown if, under the altered law, the state has approved plates that would have been rejected under the old law. Recently approved plates include “FOXYMEM” and “K9HEAT.”
So far in 2016, four plates including “KIS-MYSS” and three variants of the “BTCH” plate, including WHT and BLK, have been rejected or revoked.
A long list of variations on the spelling of the F-bomb, now banned, as well as “HOTDAM,” “HOTS,” “IDIOT,” “IDIOTS” and “MCDUDU” could be approved under the law change.
To avoid the whole matter of deciding what is allowed, the state could choose to eliminate the vanity plate program altogether, but would be unlikely to do so. Vanity plates cost $25 when they are first applied for and $25 a year to renew. In 2014 and 2015, vanity plate fees raised $1.5 million each year for the state’s highway fund.
All 50 states offer some version of a vanity or personalized license plate, as do all but one Canadian province: There is no vanity plate program in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Dunlap, said it is likely some messages that were previously denied will be issued under the law’s new language. But an applicant will have to jump through an extra hoop for it, Muszynski said.
She said the banned list, on file at all of the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles locations, will stay in effect and clerks will still refer to it when considering new plate requests, though officials are editing the list to conform to the new law.
A person who has a vanity plate request denied will have to make a specific request directly to the secretary of state’s office for reconsideration. It is at that point that the new language in the law will be taken into consideration, Dunlap said.
So, if you feel strongly about having the plate “DOINIT” or “IFART” on your car, you may still be able to “GO4IT.”