Maine close to ridding license plates of obscenities

May 5, 2022, 1:19 AM | Updated: 1:31 pm

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The rackin’ frackin’ sassafrassin’ salty language on hundreds of Maine license plates is one step closer to being removed from the road.

Maine’s secretary of state released draft rules Thursday that would eliminate references to genitalia, sex acts and profanities that proliferated after the state severely loosened language restrictions on so-called vanity license plates in 2015.

The rough and foul language on the plates led to a steady stream of complaints.

It was all too much even for a secretary of state who previously served as director of American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which has fought for First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

“Incitement to violence, profanity, ethnic, racial, religious, or other slurs, or reference to illegal or criminal activity – all of which unfortunately can be seen on Maine registration plates today – are all directly contrary to the public interest,” Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said in a statement.

It has been a delicate balancing act.

A federal judge ruled in 2020 that California couldn’t enforce a ban on vanity license plates it considers “offensive to good taste and decency.”

So Maine’s rules had to be narrowly tailored.

The draft rules would prohibit license plates that falsely suggest an association with a government agency; encourage violence or unlawful activities; attack race or religion; suggest genitalia or sex acts; or represent profane or obscene language. A public hearing is scheduled later this month.

There would be a mechanism for a motorist to appeal if a vanity plate was rejected because of objectionable language.

Things quickly got out of control when the state all but dropped its review process in 2015 after previously banning “obscene, contemptuous, profane or prejudicial” messages on license plates.

Cathie Curtis, deputy secretary of state overseeing the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said the coarse and offensive language that has since cropped up routinely elicited complaints.

Last year, the Maine Legislature adopted a bill restoring a review, and the governor signed it into law.

In Maine, there are about 121,000 vanity license plates on the roads in a state with about 1.3 million residents. It’s unclear how many of them could be removed; state officials previously estimated hundreds.

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Maine close to ridding license plates of obscenities