By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Think you can express a sense of humor by personalizing a license plate, however you please and saying whatever you like?
In 2013, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles rejected enough vanity plate requests to fill 506 single-spaced pages, a response to a Freedom of Information Act request by MuckRock user and Loudoun County resident Andrew Mickert revealed.
What kind of vile vanity plates did the DMV reject? They range from “ACDCN01” to “ADDICT1” to “AM4PLAY” to “BBYMAKR” to “BOOTY4U,” to name just a few.
Some of the rejected plates were clearly explicit, but others baffled MuckRock reporter George LeVines, who published the fascinating find for the website, which serves as an open-government facilitator and publisher of citizen-generated FOIA requests.
“Some of the acronyms, I have no idea,” LeVines told Watchdog.org. “Are they gang-related or sex humor that I just don’t understand? I have no idea. But that definitely is a big question, is what in the world is transpiring? Who is going through these applications and saying no?”
Some of that “who” is a software system that weeds out character groupings already in use, were rejected previously or have been deemed inappropriate by DMV staff, based on specific criteria the DMV set years ago in conjunction with the attorney general’s office.
DMV policy prohibits anything “profane, obscene or vulgar in nature; sexually explicit or graphic; excretory-related; used to describe intimate body parts or genitals; used to describe drugs, drug culture or drug use; used to condone or encourage violence; used to describe illegal activities or illegal substances.”
Then, requests that pass the software test get a human review, said Sunni Blevins Brown, public relations and media liaison for the Virginia DMV.
But, questionable requests have one more hurdle — a DMV committee.
“We have a diverse group of about 20 DMV employees that meet every month and take a look at any questionable messages, and say, ‘Oh yeah, they were sexually explicit,’ or, ‘No, that’s not, we don’t know what they were trying to say so that one’s OK,’” Brown said.
Asked how rejecting some plates jells with free-speech concerns, Brown said the goal is protecting all drivers from foul language.
“The criteria that’s in place is pretty standard, I would imagine, for what other states do,” she said. “We hope messages will be fun and creative, and we’re so glad Virginians have this option. But we do have to have some criteria in place so there aren’t a lot of plates out there that have a sexually explicit term while you’re sitting in traffic.”
Brown said the Virginia DMV receives about 10,000 requests for personalized plates each month. Of those, about 20 reach the committee. Of those 20, usually no more than half are denied or recalled.
That’s right — license plates can also be recalled, even after they’ve hit the road. People can report a license plate they find offensive for further review, because it’s entirely possible that the computer or committee missed some nuance, Brown said.
In 2012, the DMV recalled 137 plates.
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new comes in,” Brown said.
The Virginia FOIA request was part of a project MuckRock is launching to gather rejected personalized plates from all 50 states.
“Once we kind of get a handle on these databases and maybe even before them, something that’s worth looking into is, what are the criteria?” LeVines said.
Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.