Senators advance tighter ban on disparaging vanity plates

Senators on Thursday advanced a tighter ban on vanity license plates that have disparaging words or messages — such as the “DEPORTM” plate that recently sparked social media controversy and led to changes in how the state reviews personalized plates.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-1 to forward SB97 to the full Senate for consideration.

It would ban personalized plates that disparage anyone based on race, color, national origin, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status or a physical or mental disability.

That would be added on top of the more loosely worded current ban on plates that are “offensive to good taste and decency.” The Division of Motor Vehicles says on its website that it considers that to mean plates that “express contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender or political affiliation.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said putting the clearer ban into state law helps the DMV to more easily control disparaging plates.

But Committee Chairman Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville — the only member who voted against it — said that with the long list of protected groups in the bill, “someone could take offense at anything put on a personalized plate…. By doing this, you are almost saying we need to get rid of personalized plate, period.”

He used what he said was the real example of a person who put “REDSKINS” on a plate because she was a fan of the Washington, D.C., football team. A lawsuit challenged the plates all the way to the Utah Supreme Court, where justices refused to ban the motto but instructed the State Tax Commission to apply its own rules, leading to the agency revoking the plates.

Escamilla said banning more things seen by protected groups as offensive is not bad.

For example, she said age is a protected group. She said her teenaged children might think it is funny to get a plate making fun of an older generation that says “OK Boomer.” But she said, “That’s offensive” and should not be allowed.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Tax Commission, said court rulings have allowed the state to base decisions on what to allow on plates on “community standards,” and not just what one person may find offensive that most others would not.

The bill is receiving close attention as it comes on the heels of controversy over the “DEPORTM” plate, which had remained in use since 2015 despite at least three previous complaints to state officials.

The Utah Tax Commission said earlier this week that the owner of the “DEPORTM” plate has been notified that it was revoked, beginning a period of 30 days for person to appeal.

In response to the controversy over that plate and assertions that complaints were ignored, the Tax Commission began entering all complaints about vanity plates into a system so that “anyone in the hierarchy of decision-making” can see them. And multiple complaints will now trigger a review by the Utah Attorney General’s Office

Over the years, the DMV has denied requests for vanity plates like “3MERLoT,” “4TWENTY” (a reference to a police call about marijuana), “4PLAY,” “DA^NUTZ” and even “CHEESE” and “COFFEE.” But it allowed “DEPORTM” and “FUHRER,” both of which sparked social media controversies when residents posted pictures of those vanity plates.

Escamilla’s bill also would prevent the DMV from denying a vanity plate referring “to a state symbol.”

That comes as gun advocates are appealing the DMV’s rejection of plate requests referencing the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol, which the Legislature in 2011 designated as the official state firearm. The DMV does not allow weapons references on license plates.

Escamilla said that provision was added because of the appeal by gun advocates.