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How States Decide if a Vanity Plate is ‘Offensive’

The issue of vanity license plates was in the news recently, when the state of New Jerseyrejected an application for a plate that read “ATHE1ST.” The applicant was David Silverman,president of the group American Atheists. The official reason was that the plate was “offensive.”

Jersey officials reversed their ruling a few days later, when the story spread faster than a 1970 Hemi Cuda with NOS exhaust. Still, the incident led us to wonder how states determine whether a vanity plate message is too divisive for drive-time. Rules vary widely across the country, but Virginia’s approach comes close to the procedures used by most areas. So here’s how they do it in the Old Dominion.
Basically, “big Brother is watching you”

That famous phrase from the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four might come to mind when you hear the name of the organization that decides what vanity plates get approved. It’s known simply as the “Word Committee,” which sounds sinister due to its disturbing ambiguity.
In reality, however, it refers to a group of devoted Virginia DMV public servants. They gather every 30 days to review proposed vanity plate messages. Those plates that the group deems offensive get turned down, but the applicants don’t suddenly vanish – as far as we know, anyway.

License Plate

Group members try to use commonly accepted standards when evaluating an application. Most of their choices make sense, at least to us. Here are some of the ones they’ve given a thumbs-down to in the past:



The group does its best, but occasionally one slips past them, like the plate that said “kids first” (pictured above) on the bottom. Sounds nice, until you see the letters above that read “EATTHE.” That one eventually got pulled, but who knows how many other inappropriate messages are running loose on the streets. I suppose it’s the price we pay for free speech. That’s one thing all of us should hold sacred, whether we’re atheists or not.

License Plate 3

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