Maine lawmakers are considering legislation that would prohibit offensive language on vanity license plates.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said her office “regularly receives complaints from motorists who are appalled” by the messages on some state-issued license plates and that she shares their concerns.
“It’s not safe for parents or grandparents to play the license plate game with their kids in Maine anymore,” Bellows said in a statement. “You can’t escape the proliferation of the f-word and worse.”
Before 2015, Maine law allowed the secretary of state’s office to reject personalized plates containing language with “obscene, contemptuous, profane or prejudicial messages.” Since then, the office has only been allowed to reject plates that falsely suggest an association with a public institution, are duplicative, or contain language that encourages violence or other unlawful activity.
Bellows said she supports three bills in the Legislature that would allow her office to ban vanity plates containing offensive or obscene language. Bellows said that while the First Amendment protects the right to have any bumper sticker, it doesn’t force the state to issue license plates that subject “every child in your neighborhood to a message the government wouldn’t allow them to see in a movie theater.”
But Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the state must respect constitutionally protected speech if it chooses to offer vanity plates.
“When the state starts limiting speech based on what it considers offensive, we should immediately put our First Amendment guard up,” Silverman said. “Our constitution is wary of government deciding for the people what is and is not acceptable expression. Maine is not obligated to offer vanity license plates. But if it chooses to do so, it must respect constitutionally protected speech no matter how disagreeable.”
Maine motorists have gotten creative with personalized license plates in recent years. An Instagram and Facebook account called @vanity_of_maine compiles photos of personalized Maine plates that feature unique and often humorous messages, such as “BWAHAHA” and “CHASE ME.”
Vanity plates aren’t unique to Maine, of course, and this isn’t the first time they have become a topic of debate. In 2019, officials from the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles asked a Rochester woman to turn in her vanity license plates, “PB4WEGO,” because they violated the state’s codes. Last year, lawmakers in Vermont considered a bill that would allow emojis on license plates.
In February, a law that allowed the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles to reject “offensive” vanity license plates was declared unconstitutional by a federal court judge. The law had given the DMV administrator the authority to deny vanity license plates with “connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”
The suit was filed on behalf of a Tesla owner who wanted a plate that read “FKGAS.” The ruling allowed him to keep the plate.