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Call us old-fashioned, but we don’t think the government should be handing out license plates with the f-word on them.
If people want to plaster their car with questionable bumper stickers, it’s their right to make that mistake. The state of Maine, however, is right to reconsider its current open season on obscene license plates.
In 2015, the state ended a process for vetting most vanity license plates. As a result, Mainers may have seen some rather, um, creative plates out on the road featuring curse words or references to body parts and sex acts. It’s not exactly poetry in motion.
The Maine Legislature is considering several bills that would re-establish the Maine Secretary of State’s ability to review and reject obscene license plates. There is room for carefully crafted action here that respects the First Amendment. Any action should be guided by the recent experiences of other states.
Federal judges in California and Rhode Island, for example, have ruled against those states’ attempts to ban offensive vanity plates. In those cases, the judges rightly found those particular efforts ran afoul of the First Amendment.
The approaches there were far too broad. The California Department of Motor Vehicles banned vanity license plates that it considered “offensive to good taste and decency,” according to the Associated Press. The Rhode Island law gave that state’s DMV the ability to deny plates that “might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency,” according to the Providence Journal.
In a recent Boston Globe article about the current conversation in Maine, Justin Silverman of the New England First Amendment Coalition had this to say: “When the state starts limiting speech based on what it considers offensive, we should immediately put our First Amendment guard up.”
We agree. We also think that, even with our guard up, there are ways to remove at least some plainly obscene curse words and references from Maine vanity license plates without relying on broad, subjective review from the government. As even the judge ruling against California’s offensive license plate ban noted, there’s still constitutional room to deny plates that are obscene, profane or contain hate speech.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows made a strong point at the end of her testimony in support of the vanity license plate bills being considered here in the Pine Tree State.
“In summary, the First Amendment protects your right to have any bumper sticker you want, but it doesn’t force the state to issue you a registration plate that subjects every child in your neighborhood to a message the government wouldn’t allow them to see in a movie theater,” Bellows said in her testimony this week.
Now, two of the license plate bills before the Legislature would clearly make the mistake of being overly broad. The Transportation Committee voted not to pass those bills Friday. Another, LD 130, is much more specific. The committee advanced that bill, which would allow the Secretary of State to refuse to issue or recall license plates that have language that is “vulgar or obscene or constitutes racial or ethnic epithets,” refers to drugs, or “connotes breasts, genitalia, the pubic area or buttocks or relates to sexual or eliminatory functions,” among a few other restrictions.
It might not be the right exact language, but it’s the right approach in terms of being specific. This must not be an open-ended review process that gives the secretary of state broad leeway to determine what is and isn’t acceptable.
We’re only half joking when we say that Maine should consider taking George Carlin’s list of “Seven words you can never say on television,” using it as a list of words you can’t say on license plates, putting that in state statute, and calling it a day.
We’ve also considered the idea of just scrapping the use of vanity plates all together, which would remove the need for this debate. But that would also remove a decent chunk of revenue. According to data from the Secretary of State’s office, there were more than 100,000 vanity plates in 2020 that generated over $2.5 million for the state.
That money is worth holding on to moving forward. But Maine people, through their government, don’t have to keep allowing some vanity plates to become obscenity plates.
As Bellows pointed out in her testimony, New Hampshire’s experience on this issue can be instructive for Maine. New Hampshire previously had a vanity license plate law that its state supreme court struck down for being too vague. The state then revised and narrowed its approach.
New Hampshire is now managing to live free and drive with some specific restrictions for obscene license plates. Maine should cautiously do the same, with great care for First Amendment protections and an understanding of how courts have ruled in recent cases.