When vanity plates go too far


By Kathryn Watson (Image/Department of Motor Vehicles)

Think you can express a sense of humor by personalizing a license plate, however you please and saying whatever you like?

Think again.

In 2013, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles rejected enough vanity plate requests to fill 506 single-spaced pages, a response to a Freedom of Information Act request by MuckRock user and Loudoun County resident Andrew Mickert revealed.

What kind of vile vanity plates did the department reject? They range from “ACDCN01” to “ADDICT1” to “AM4PLAY” to “BBYMAKR” to “BOOTY4U,” to name just a few.

A few of the rejected plates clearly were explicit, but others baffled MuckRock reporter George LeVines, who published the fascinating find for the website, which serves as an open-government facilitator and publisher of citizen-generated FOIA requests.

“Some of the acronyms, I have no idea,” LeVines said. “Are they gang-related or sex humor that I just don’t understand? I have no idea. But that definitely is a big question, is what in the world is transpiring? Who is going through these applications and saying no?”

Some of that “who” is a software system that weeds out character groupings already in use, were rejected previously or been deemed inappropriate by the agency’s staff, based on specific criteria the department set years ago in conjunction with the attorney general’s office.

Department policy prohibits anything “profane, obscene or vulgar in nature; sexually explicit or graphic; excretory-related; used to describe intimate body parts or genitals; used to describe drugs, drug culture or drug use; used to condone or encourage violence; used to describe illegal activities or illegal substances.”

A person reviews requests that pass the software test, said Sunni Blevins Brown, spokeswoman for the department.

But, questionable requests have one more hurdle — a department committee.

“We have a diverse group of about 20 DMV employees that meet every month and take a look at any questionable messages, and say, ‘Oh yeah, they were sexually explicit,’ or, ‘No, that’s not, we don’t know what they were trying to say so that one’s OK,’” Brown said.

Asked whether rejecting plates raises free-speech concerns, Brown said the goal is protecting drivers from foul language.

“The criteria that’s in place is pretty standard, I would imagine, for what other states do,” she said. “We hope messages will be fun and creative, and we’re so glad Virginians have this option. But we do have to have some criteria in place so there aren’t a lot of plates out there that have a sexually explicit term while you’re sitting in traffic.”

Brown said her department receives about 10,000 requests for personalized plates a month. About 20 go before the committee. Of those, usually no more than half are denied or recalled.

That’s right — license plates also can be recalled, even after they’ve hit the road. People can report a license plate they find offensive for further review, because it’s entirely possible that the computer or committee missed some nuance, Brown said.

In 2012, the agency recalled 137 plates.

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes in,” Brown said.

The Virginia FOIA request was part of a project MuckRock is launching to gather rejected personalized plates from all 50 states.

“Once we kind of get a handle on these databases and maybe even before them, something that’s worth looking into is, what are the criteria?” LeVines said.

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau, and can be reached at kwatson@watchdog.org.