Commentary

Six years after deregulating them, lawmakers are cracking down on vanity plates again

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A bill to limit license plates with profane or vulgar references passed under the hammer in the Maine House and Senate last week and was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills on June 16.

LD 130 could remove roughly 400 license plates from Maine’s roads for essentially being unsavory in the eyes of our current government. The bill passed a 7-4 vote from the Transportation Committee in early May.

In 2015, a bill was passed that loosened regulations on what can and cannot be displayed on vanity plates. Now, just six years later, lawmakers are pushing to undo that same action.

This foolish limitation first entered the public conversation when, in 2015, a breast cancer survivor attempted to attain the plate “BQQBS.” She wanted the plate to be of the state’s cancer awareness plate variety, which has a pink ribbon. The woman simply wanted to bring awareness to this issue through her license plate, and the state tried to prevent her from doing so.

No government should be the “language police” in this way. Adults in Maine should be able to feature whatever phrase they want on something as trivial as a license plate, provided it does not incite violence and is not discriminatory. Such expression is protected by the First Amendment. 

As noted by the Bangor Daily News, Sal Bartolotta of Bremen decided to commemorate his late father by imprinting his final words, “kiss my a**” on the license plate of his truck. LD 130 will likely force him to change it to something else, despite the lack of ill intent.

Zachary Heiden, the chief counsel of the Maine ACLU, in his legislative testimony said the state cannot limit a plate simply because it finds it offensive. Indeed, this is how free speech was intended to work.

Who gets to define “offensive” through the eyes of the state? Such language is wholly subjective. The proposed bill uses words such as “profane” and “obscene,” but it goes no further to explain what constitutes such offenses.

LD 130 would also limit vanity plates that falsely indicate association with a public institution, are duplicative or encourage violence. Such measures have been frustratingly cast into the same bill as these aforementioned limits against “derogatory” or “profane” references. Duplicative license plates and “vulgar” license plates cannot be compared one-to-one; one is objective while the other is subjective.

Nonetheless, it’s amusing how short a time it took for lawmakers to undo their 2015 vanity plate law, and it will be interesting to see if the law was crafted in such a way to withstand future legal challenges.

About Nick Linder

Nicholas Linder, of Cincinnati, is a communications Intern for Maine Policy Institute. He is going into his second year of studying finance and public policy analysis at The Ohio State University. On campus, he is involved with Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations and Business for Good.

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