Vulgar license plates are out as hundreds of new laws take effect in Maine

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Oct. 17—If you want to say something nasty, hateful or violent on your license plates, you'll have to do it in another state.

More than 500 new laws or law changes approved by the Legislature earlier this year will take effect Monday, from the creation of a new state holiday for Juneteenth to tougher penalties for domestic violence crimes involving children.

One of the new laws allows Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows to reject vanity license plates for a variety of reasons, including hate speech, violence, obscenity and those that are sexually explicit.

It also sets in place a process for Bellows to recall previously issued plates based on complaints, if they cross the line. Those complaints will be reviewed by a special panel, which will also hear appeals if a motorist wants to dispute the state's decisions about what is or isn't allowed.

Bellows said the state isn't going to sift through the existing plates to find offensive tags and immediately confiscate them.

"We are not going to start yanking the plates on Monday," Bellows said. "But people who review the law and realize their plates fall outside of the law may want to voluntarily exchange their vanity plate for another plate of their choice. No one will be grandfathered."

Bellows, a former executive director of the ACLU of Maine, supported the law change earlier this year in a break from her predecessor, Matthew Dunlap, who told legislators in the past that limiting such plates could be considered a violation of a driver's constitutionally protected free speech and might not be defensible in court.

Dunlap was in office when the Legislature relaxed the standards in 2015, effectively allowing obscenities but barring messages that might incite violence — what he referred to as "fighting words." That change opened the door to a wide variety of vulgar and offensive messages, according to those supporting tighter rules.

But the new law, based on a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is tightly crafted to address potential legal challenges such as one used to win a lawsuit in New Hampshire over the rejected vanity plate "COPSLIE."

Diamond said the law is written to hold up against any legal challenges based on free speech.

"I would actually welcome a legal challenge," Diamond said.

Vanity plate regulation varies from state to state, and legal challenges are not uncommon. Courts have struck down provisions they have deemed too vague and therefore open to arbitrary interpretation.

A federal judge issued a preliminary ruling last fall striking down Rhode Island's law permitting administrators to make judgments based on what they deemed to be offensive to good taste or decency. Nearly identical language also was struck down by a federal judge in California late last year.

A court in New Hampshire struck down similar limits in 2014, but that state now uses a standard with more specific limits like in the new Maine law.

It's unclear how many plates may be subject to recall or review, but in her testimony to the Legislature, Bellows said a cursory search of BMV records of the more than 119,000 vanity plates on the road she found at least 119 that included the most common "four-letter" words.

A Facebook entertainment page, dubbed the Vanity of Maine, features photos of Maine vanity plates snapped by contributors to the page including many that could be subject to the new law. The page has 15, 343 followers and features images of license plates from the obscene and hateful to social commentary, such as "OK KAREN" and "(expletive) 2020."

The page's creator, Morgan Alexander, 31, of Bar Harbor, said he started posting license plate photos on Instagram in 2016, and there are more than 18,000 images of plates now.

A hotel manager, Alexander said he, too, has a plate featuring a vague sexual reference that he suspects could make it subject to a recall.

"I'm OK with it," Alexander said of the new law. Plates with expletives "have gotten way out of hand," he said. "At first it was funny and now it's just way out of control. ... People have kids who can read and for me the plates with the f-word on them can go bye-bye."

Diamond, who also is a former secretary of state and oversaw the agency that issues license plates, said many people don't realize they don't own their vanity plates the way they own bumper stickers. The fee paid to the state for the plate is for the privilege of having a custom plate message, but is not a purchase of the plate, he said.

"The plate is public property, like a public building," Diamond said. "Individuals have a right to free speech, but they don't have the right to deface government property in exercising that right."

The ban on vulgar and hateful language isn't the only new law regarding license plates. One places a moratorium on specialty plates.

Maine has more than 25 different license plate styles with several specialty plates that serve as fundraisers for nonprofit causes. Specialty plates highlight a range of causes and raise money for everything from the University of Maine System to farming and lobstering to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital. Motorists pay an extra $20 fee for a specialty plate and a $25 fee for a vanity plate.

The standard-issue license plate for Maine features the iconic official state bird, the chickadee. Bellows said town clerks who issue plates locally have said that because not all the plates are popular and most Maine motorists are happy to have the chickadee plate, they run into issues with finding space to store the large selection of plates Maine offers.

Yet another new law, however, adds one more specialty plate to the mix: the Maine lighthouse plate.

The plate, which depicts a lighthouse that looks like Portland Head Light, will be added to the mix this year, with the fees from the plate going to the Maine Lighthouse Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and restoration of lighthouses on the Maine coast.

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