Maine secretary of state gets behind bill to reject obscene license plates

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Matt Byrne, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·3 min read
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May 4—Legislators are pushing for new prohibitions on obscene or objectionable vanity license plates, and want to give the secretary of state the power to recall such license plates that are already in circulation.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows testified in support of the measures at a public hearing on Monday, but said some tweaks may be necessary to prevent a successful challenge under the First Amendment. The three bills are under consideration by the Committee on Transportation.

Support for the new limits from Bellows, a former executive director of the Maine ACLU, is a break from her predecessor, Matthew Dunlap, who told legislators in the past that limiting such plates may not be defensible in court and could be considered a violation of a driver's constitutionally protected free speech.

The issue arose most recently in 2019 during the short legislative session, but after the window to submit new bills had already closed. A current bill sponsor, Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Penobscot, appears to have re-submitted her proposal.

Bellows in her testimony said she would work with the attorney general's office to suggest amendments to address the constitutional issues. She said that license plates are state property, and therefore the government has a legitimate interest in regulating speech contained in them. Bellows said the limitations the government imposes on license plate messages must be narrowly tailored, and likened their regulation to bans on using swear words on broadcast television.

"A citizen may post a sign on their property or a bumper sticker on their vehicle with the most offensive slogan they can choose," Bellows said in testimony supporting L.D. 130. "But a registration plate is not a bumper sticker."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, said vanity plates were originally intended to raise extra money for the bureau of motor vehicles while giving motorists license to be fun and creative, but what he and his constituents have seen in recent years is an "extraordinary escalation of vulgarity," he said.

"The degree of obscenity and also insults that are allowed have gotten out of control and are beyond what most people would consider reasonable expression or statements," Diamond said during the hearing. "This bill is not an attempt to apply strict puritan guidelines to what people may display on their assigned plates. Instead, it's a bill that would give the secretary of state the authority to prohibit the most vulgar of personal attacks and insults from being displayed."

The proliferation of the obscene plates has increased, Bellows said. A cursory search of common "four letter words" in the BMV records system found about 421 plates out of more than 117,000 vanity registrations that may run afoul of the new limits, her office said, but the potential number of offensive plates could be higher.

Diamond's bill would specifically prohibit references to genitalia, buttocks, breasts or "eliminatory functions," vulgar or obscene language including racial slurs or epithets based on gender identity, sexual orientation or disability status.

The measure would also prohibit referring to "an intoxicant or drug" or its use, non-use, sale or purveyance, and would prohibit any abbreviations or slang terms for any words prohibited by other parts of the bill. It would also give Bellows' office the power to cancel plates that are deemed objectionable under the new law and recall them.

Bellows said that if the bill is passed into law, her office would develop a policy on how to evaluate license plates for obscenity, using a model policy developed by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators as a guide.

This story will be updated.