The nation’s highest court has made it clear: The state is in control of what your license tag says, even if you are the one paying the extra cost for a special or personalized plate.
In North Carolina, last month’s ruling hasn’t yet settled whether license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag will continue to be issued in the long run. State leaders are haggling over which branch of government could or should take action.
But there has been little attention given to the nearly 6,300 words, names, acronyms and initials that are banned by the state of North Carolina from being on personalized tags – which, for an extra $30, let you drive around with a custom message that makes other drivers groan, chuckle or puzzle over.
ALLAH is banned from N.C. plates even while JESUS, CHRIST and GOD are not on the list of unacceptable choices.
In many cases, the state’s reason for a ban seems obvious, as with IH8NCDMV or KIL0SAMA. Hundreds of banned plates include letters or numbers that spell out curse words, sex acts or private body parts.
Many more on the list defy easy explanation and could raise questions of fairness. These license plates deal with more political issues, such as guns, race, religion and sexual identity.
Among the forbidden tags are 1MGAY and GAYLIB, while STR8T and HETERO are not on the banned list. Also banned: GL0CK9, KKK and MARIJUAN. Even CANCRSUX is not allowed.
It’s still legal to have a Confederate flag on a tag, but a Muslim can’t have the name of their God?
Jibril Hough, Charlotte activist
Another example: ALLAH, which is banned from North Carolina plates even while JESUS, CHRIST and GOD are not on the list of unacceptable choices.
“It’s still legal to have a Confederate flag on a tag, but a Muslim can’t have the name of their God? That’s surprising,” said Jibril Hough, an activist who works on behalf of Charlotte’s Muslim community. “It’s censorship and a form of discrimination against Muslims. It makes me wonder if Allah is offensive to someone in Raleigh.”
While the Supreme Court ruling eliminates a freedom of speech argument, Hough and others could still successfully raise concerns about freedom of religion, says Mary-Rose Papandrea, a professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill.
People who are LGBT could argue they are being denied equal protection under the Constitution, though she says that might be tougher to prove. Some 50 references to sexuality, including LESB1AN, IG04MEN and KWEER are on the banned list, the Observer found.
“Claims (of discrimination) by gays or lesbians or pro-abortion groups are unlikely to succeed, but religious groups can argue that the state (is) giving preference or benefits to one religious group over another,” said Papandrea, adding that citizens should be wary of the Supreme Court ruling that found license plates to be a form of government speech.
“If the government is allowed to determine which messages are allowed and which are not, it allows the government to be the censor in a way that’s contrary to the founding principles of the First Amendment. ... That should be deeply disturbing to everyone, no matter what part of the political spectrum they are on.”
12 plates a week rejected by the state
5-15 written complaints each year
Margaret Howell, spokeswoman for N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, said the state began cataloging banned plates in 1996. Other plates were added when the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators shared a list of banned tags in other states.
That means no one knows for sure whether a North Carolinian asked for words like GAY or ALLAH and was denied the plate. It may have happened in another state, she says.
Howell said the division’s eight-person Special Plates Unit meets to decide whether a requested plate should be denied. North Carolina law says the division may refuse to issue a tag that “might carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency.”
Unit members review the banned list, search the Internet and Urban Dictionary and interview experts to ferret out the latest acronyms for obscenities.
And they ban some plates, such as 8BB88BB8, because they’re difficult for law enforcement to read.
Howell said the state rejects about 12 plates a week, adding them to the list.
But even finding what’s banned is a challenge, because the DMV site doesn’t list the 6,300 banned combinations of letters, numbers and symbols. Applicants who apply online for banned names are simply told “plate not available,” the same message given if the plate had already been ordered by someone else.
Howell says the only way to find out if a plate is banned is to call the DMV Special Plates Unit at 919-861-3575 and ask.
“If it’s on the banned list, people can appeal, and sometimes we do see merit in their case,” she said. “For instance, if someone’s initials spell out an ugly word, they have a good reason to want it. If they can present a good reason, they can overturn their initial rejection.”
She said sometimes things slip by the Special Plates Unit and end up on the road. In such cases, it’s the public that raises an objection, she says.
On average, the state receives five to 15 such written complaints a year.
“If Joe Blow citizen is riding the highway and sees something that is an affront to their sensibility, they can complain in writing to the DMV to have it recalled,” Howell said. “It has to be signed. Nothing anonymous. And we will send a letter to the customer with the plate, telling them we’ve gotten a complaint and we need a further explanation of why they wanted the plate.”
Want a custom plate?
Custom plate fees are in addition to regular vehicle fees and taxes.
Personalized plate: The state charges $30 to customize a license plate with up to eight letters, numbers and symbols.
Special plate: The state charges from $10 to $30 for a plate with one of more than 150 emblems, such as for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
Check plate availability and costs at www.ncdot.gov/dmv/vehicle/plates.