Vanity License Plate Rules Vex Georgia and Other States

Georgia’s rules for custom tags leave lots of room for interpretation
Photograph by Getty Images

Because of an “emergency rule” declared by the state of Georgia, Atlanta hairdresser James Cyrus Gilbert can finally bolt a license plate reading GAYPWR to his Honda CRV. Things reached a crisis point in June, a few months after Gilbert sued the state’s Department of Revenue, alleging it had stifled his right to free speech by denying three applications for vanity plates using the word “gay.” Instead of going to trial, the agency settled, declared the state of emergency, and agreed to review its vanity tag policy.

That will be a big job. The state keeps a list of 10,000 banned letter-and-number combinations describing the size of certain body parts, not-so-nice words for sexual congress, and all things scatological. It’s the decades-old product of a vague set of rules prohibiting hate speech, violence, and obscenities as interpreted and reinterpreted by countless county officials. That explains why Georgia allows license plates reading GAYGAY but not GAYGUY or 4GAYLIB; THNKGOD but not CARGOD or TAXGOD; and MMMBEER but not GOTBEER.

Personalized license plates are a tiny source of revenue—last year Georgia made only $153,000 from the plates, which cost drivers an extra $35 a year—but a giant headache for state regulators nationwide, who must strike a delicate balance between protecting free speech and protecting drivers’ eyes from naughty puns. In Colorado the American Civil Liberties Union took up the cause of a vegetarian denied ILVTOFU because the last two letters can mean different things to different people. An outraged citizen in Washington State forced a hearing of its Department of Licensing’s Personalized License Plate Committee after seeing a tag reading GOES211 on the road. He thought the phrase, which comes from the movie This Is Spinal Tap and describes amplifier volume, referred to another kind of measurement.

Some states regulate vanity plates minimally as private free speech; others consider them to be government property and therefore subject to stringent regulation. There’s been so much angst over the tags, some vented in courtrooms, that two years ago the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators prepared a special guide at the request of befuddled state officials. The association’s advice: When crafting rules, strive for specificity.

That suggestion hasn’t helped Georgia, where tags reading 2SEXY69 and GUNZZZ were allowed on the road, but others reading MSSEXI and HVYGUNS landed on the no-no list. Sean Casey, deputy commissioner for the state’s revenue department, says Georgia’s tag problem stems from too little state oversight of the list but some version of it is necessary: “I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I don’t want to have that uncomfortable conversation with my daughter while sitting in traffic when she learns how to read.”

The new policy Georgia’s considering would prohibit sexual orientation from being disparaged on a tag. References to sex, sexual acts, body parts, excrement, bodily fluids, drugs, alcohol, and weapons would be explicitly banned for the first time. To Gilbert, the revisions are both overdue and amusing. Noting that they’d allow “gay” but prohibit “gun,” he asks, “Whoever thought you’d see that in Georgia?”

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