Freedom of speech is an argument that can only get you so far when your plate is outright obscene.
In most states, a department or committee of some sort will oversee applications for vanity license plates, but Maine is different. America's northeasternmost state has no approval process, and as a result, residents took advantage by getting obscene plates fitted to their cars. Heath Ledger's Joker summed it up well: people are "only as good as the world allows them to be." With no oversight, one resident even got a plate reading "F*** Y0U," except on the actual plate, the expletive is reportedly spelled out in full. But Maine has had enough, and according to the Associated Press, the state has begun issuing recall notices to those with obscene or offensive plates.
The notices follow a new set of rules that Maine's Department of Motor Vehicles established last year, which ban derogatory references to age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability. Profane or obscene language is also banned, as is any language that may incite violence. To avoid these recalls happening again in the future, a committee has now been set up at the DMV to review any vanity plate application and to deal with complaints from the public on existing plates.
AP reports that the state has roughly 124,000 custom plates on its roads, and about 400 of these are expected to be recalled for their offensive or obscene nature.
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows is passionate about free speech but views license plates, which are state property, as an area that should not be tainted by obscenity. "What I would say to those who want to engage in objectionable or questionable speech: Get a bumper sticker," she said.
But how did this happen in the first place?
In 2015, state lawmakers essentially eliminated the review process after a lawsuit successfully targeted neighboring New Hampshire's restrictions on vanity plates, resulting in what Bellows described as a "wild wild West" of license plates where just about anything goes.
So how does this new change compare to other parts of the country?
In 2020, California ruled that offensive license plates would be legal but with limits. For example, a fan of the rock band Slayer was denied access to a plate reading "SLAAYRR" because some might find it "threatening, aggressive or hostile," while other applications were denied on the grounds that they could be construed as sexual or vulgar. After a lengthy court case, US District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that vanity plates were a part of personal expression and "must be both viewpoint-neutral and reasonable." Thus, the state's DMV can still deny plates that are obscene or profane or contain hate speech. As a side note, California recently approved digital license plates.
Basically, if you want your Corvette to stand out from the crowd with a unique plate, just don't choose something that could offend your grandmother.