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Maine Secretary Of State Joins Effort To Restrict Offensive License Plates

Maine's secretary of state has joined the effort to prohibit profane vanity plates. This plate, BNA BRAT, is probably OK.
Mark Sardella
/
Flickr/Creative Commons
Maine's secretary of state has joined the effort to prohibit profane vanity plates. This plate, BNA BRAT, is probably OK.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows is joining a push by state lawmakers for new restrictions on profane or offensive vanity license plates.

Bellows, a Democrat, says the Department of Motor Vehicles receives angry complaints every week about vanity plates that explicitly use profanity, as well as references to violence, sexual activity and derogatory comments about race and religion.

She says the state has issued roughly 120,000 vanity license plates in circulation, and the majority of them can be described as adhering to some semblance of decency — but about 400 or so do not.

Bellows, along with the Democrat and Republican co-sponsors of the bills, argue that the free speech argument that has deterred previous efforts to limit what car registrants can announce for the price of $25 does not apply to state-issued license plates.

"A citizen may post a sign on their property, or a bumper sticker on their vehicle with the most offensive slogan they chose. The registration plate is not a bumper sticker, and despite the common misconception that registration plate is the property of the registrant, it is not in fact private property," she said.

Bellows' position is break from her predecessor, Matt Dunlap, and the organization that she once led, the ACLU of Maine.

Dunlap worried that barring profane vanity plates would invite a court challenge on First Amendment grounds, while the ACLU continues to argue that governments cannot limit speech it disagrees with.

The Legislature's Transportation Committee is expected to work on the bills in the coming weeks.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.