June 30, 2022

Botu Linum

The Car & Automotive Devotees

Our View: People with obscene license plates show everyone who they are

3 min read

Even if we understand the impulse, we don’t love the new state law aimed at eliminating profane and obscene vanity license plates.

For one, we don’t think the government should be deciding which speech is suitable for the public and which isn’t, even if it is on a government-issued license plate.

And even if there’s no doubt the language displayed on vanity plates has gotten more coarse and vulgar in recent years, surpassing most people’s idea of what’s appropriate, it’ll take something more than a state law to make it go away.

It’ll take more people asking, what kind of person puts that stuff out there?

The new law on vanity plates was passed last year by the Legislature. Earlier this month, the secretary of state’s office released a draft rule on its implementation, including standards saying what would and wouldn’t be allowed, and outlining the process for reviewing applications. The public comment period is still open.

The law came in response to increasing complaints from residents over profane plates, including a number that spelled out the f-word for all to see. According to Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a review of about 119,000 vanity plates found at least 119 that included the most common “four-letter” words.

It’s something the previous secretary of state, Matthew Dunlap, had given up on trying to police, saying that efforts to keep certain words off of plates would likely violate the First Amendment and not hold up in court. In 2015, he relaxed the rules, banning only plates that were found to likely incite violence, such as Nazi terminology.

In the meantime, profanity has become a much more common sight in public, driven by our increasing partisan and divisive politics.

Though he’s not alone, profanity was a part of President Trump’s style, and now it’s a regular part of Republican politics. A common Trump sign from 2020 reads, in large letters, “No More BullS***”. You can see it for yourself along busy roads throughout Maine, along with signs and bumper stickers that use the f-word to disparage President Biden and Gov. Mills.

No law can change that, nor can it do anything about the many questionable bumper stickers and signs that have no relation to politics whatsoever.

Sometimes you can’t write a law governing public behavior. Sometimes it’s up to people to make their own individual choices about how to present themselves.

A sense of decency toward others and their ideas of decorum keep most Mainers from bringing more spite, malice and obscenity into the world through their public messages. Most don’t want to identify themselves as inconsiderate to others, and far too flippant about important matters.

But when it doesn’t, there’s not much government can, or should do.

In those cases, people have to choose for themselves — and when they choose poorly, whether through an obscene license plate, a profane sign, or a vulgar post on Facebook, at least they are showing everyone who they really are.

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