New Md. license-plate censorship system broad, arbitrary

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration has banned more than 4,000 phrases, words, and letter-number combinations from appearing on vanity license plates in the Free State. But the Baltimore Sun reports that the system is fraught with inconsistencies. Messages such as HEROIN and KILLALL appear on the Objectionable Plate List, but others like PHATAZZ and FATPIMP are apparently permissible.

Maryland law allows the MVA to turn down vanity plate applications that include profanities or sexual meanings, refer to illegal acts or convey messages about a group’s race ethnicity or religious faith. The meaning of some tags are obvious, while others are not as easy to spot, such as 6ULDV8 — “sexual deviant.”

The vetting system began several years ago with common-sense entries from staff, but has grown considerably. Now, when drivers apply for plates online, a computer checks to see if it is approved. But the system seems somewhat arbitrary: BUTTS and WTF pass the test,  but BUNS does not.

When some words slip past the computer, the MVA relies on prison inmates, who make the plates, to alert the agency about potential drug and sexual references.

Maryland currently has 88,000 approved vanity plates in use; vehicle owners who receive complaints about their plates can file an appeal.

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