If you have an explicit license plate in Maine, it might be about to get bleeped.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows has released a draft rule to implement a law passed last year that allows her office to reject or recall more vanity plates based on profanity, sexually explicit messages or references to genitalia.

“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,” Bellows said. “The First Amendment protects your right to have any bumper sticker you want, but it doesn’t force the state to issue official registration plates that subject children in our communities to obscenity or profanity.”

The proposed rule still needs to go through a public comment process, but the document puts the state one step closer to taking vulgar or derogatory tags off the road.

The rule sets out the standards and the review process for new vanity plate applications. It also codifies the processes for making a complaint about an existing plate and for appealing a recall.

A Vanity Plate Review Committee made up of staff from the Division of Vehicle Services will review the messages “from the perspective of an ordinary observer of the plate.” They’ll consult a variety of resources, including the Urban Dictionary (a crowdsourced online dictionary for words and phrases) and a standard dictionary. Didn’t mean it that way? Doesn’t matter.

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The committee will recall or reject plates that:

falsely suggest an association with a public institution or a government or a government agency;

duplicate another plate;

encourage violence or that may result in an act of violence or other unlawful activity because of the content of the language or configuration of letters and numbers;

are profane or obscene;

make a derogatory reference to age, race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry or national origin, religion or physical or mental disability;

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connote genitalia or relate to sexual acts;

contain language or a configuration of characters that include forms of slang terms, abbreviations, phonetic spellings, or mirror images of a word or term otherwise prohibited by this section, even if expressed in a language other than English.

If your current plate gets recalled, you’ll get notice by mail and have 14 days to request a hearing or apply for a different vanity plate. If you don’t, you’ll automatically get a new registration and standard plate.

Emily Cook, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said no plates have been recalled yet and none will be until the rule is implemented. She couldn’t say for sure how many might be, but Bellows told the Legislature that a cursory search of the more than 119,000 vanity plates on the road found at least 119 that included the most common “four-letter” words.

COMPLAINTS SPURRED LEGISLATION

Maine relaxed its rules for vanity plates in 2015. It stopped screening for general vulgarity and instead only rejected or recalled plates if they were likely to incite violence. For example, a racial slur or a Nazi slogan would still get you in trouble. The term then-Secretary of State Matt Dunlap used for those plates was “fighting words.” Dunlap didn’t believe the screening process used in Maine could survive a legal challenge.

But a steady stream of complaints prompted lawmakers to crack down, and the Legislature crafted this bill last year with an eye toward lawsuits. Bellows, a former executive director of the ACLU of Maine who took over from Dunlap in 2021, supported the change.

In other states, courts have struck down rules for being too vague or arbitrary. New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that regulations barring a man from getting a “COPSLIE” plate violated his free-speech rights. New Hampshire now uses a standard that sets more specific limits, like in the new Maine law.

If you would like to submit comments on the proposed rule, you can do so until 5 p.m. on June 6. They can be emailed to [email protected], using the subject line “Public Comment, or mailed to the Secretary of State, Attn: Public Comment, 148 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0148. Written comments also can be dropped off at 103 Sewall St. in Augusta, at the office on the second floor of the Nash School Building.

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