Legislature OKs bill to tighten ban on offensive Utah vanity license plates

(Photo courtesy of Matt Pacenza) Controversy over a Utah license plate that reads "DEPORTM" helped lead to a tighter ban on offensive vanity plates in the Legislature.

Utah legislators gave final approval Friday to 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 voted 23-5 to approve House amendments to SB97. It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for his possible signature.

It would ban personalized plates that disparage anyone based on race, color, national origin, religion, age, sex. gender identity, 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.”

A recent Tribune review found the state had in recent years also approved specialty plates that read “NEGROS” “J3WBRNR” and “FÜHRER,” while rejecting applications for plates such as “COFFEE” and “MERLOT.”

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.

However, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, argued earlier 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.”

When the bill first came before the Senate, Harper proposed a substitute that would ban issuing new vanity plates — but the Senate defeated it.

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.