The vain in Maine is found mainly on its…plates.

Maine has the sixth-highest percentage of vanity license plates in America, behind the attention-hogs in Virginia, New Hampshire, Illinois, Nevada and Montana. Some 107,000 personal expressions are affixed to vehicles here, about 10 percent of the state’s 1.1 million total registrations.

Most are innocuous – family affections, sports, or slogans of automotive might. Some Mopar fan has snatched up HEMIPWR, while a blue-oval devotee has FOMOCO probably stuck onto their F-150.

“Vintage” vehicle owners take heart, however: R(u)STBU(c)KT is available, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s office. So is IMAL(e)MON, if you’re losing love for your car, or perhaps parts are falling off it.

In that case, may we suggest, NPIECES, which is also unused.

Other plates carry more weighty messages. NOWAR is taken, for example, which is pretty mild as political expressions go. Yet when the political message-making gets serious, the real owners of the license plate – the state of Maine – can censor the statement before it hits the road.

Consider the Lewiston man, Joseph Annoloro, who was stymied in 2005 when trying for GBLIES and GBLIED for his 1989 Chevy. GB was, of course, George Bush, an initializing that was deemed inappropriate. A state official, at the time, said a clerk was being “overly cautious.”

It worked, though. GBLIES and GBLIED still are not in circulation. We wonder what the possessor of FRESPCH thinks about that? (It’s issued to somebody in Maine.)

The state should prohibit profane, lascivious and downright dirty or offensive language from vanity license plates. But it treads into dangerous ground when it acts as arbiter on the appropriateness of political or social expressions, which might offend the sensibilities of some, but not all.

“Obscene, contemptuous, profane or prejudicial; promotes abusive or unlawful activity; falsely suggest an association with a public institution; or is duplicative,” are Maine’s standards for denying vanity plates. These are fine regulations – as long as the state sticks to them, which it sometimes doesn’t.

Courts are rarely on government’s side in these scrapes. In upholding a Missouri woman’s right to have ARAYAN-1 on her plate, which was rejected for being inflammatory, a federal appeals court stated, “The First Amendment knows no heckler’s veto.”

Courts in Vermont allowed a resident to keep IRISH after it was rejected for being an “ethnic” reference. The court called the case an example of when “law and common sense depart.”

(Now, the vanity plate application in Vermont reads: “A combination of letters or numbers this is a generally accepted reference to race or ethnic heritage, for example, “IRISH” may be issued.”)

In applying standards for vanity plates, government can go overboard. Instead, it should let the First Amendment reign, and police the obvious, tasteless offenders. There are worse things than somebody saying, for example, “GBLIES.”

Like not allowing someone to say it at all.

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