Want to express yourself on a license plate? Go ahead. The state will gladly take your $50 per year. You can't say any old thing, though. The Motor Vehicle Administration has cataloged more than 4,000 words, phrases and letter-number combinations it won't put on a tag.
The agency's Objectionable Plate List, as it's called, is a compendium of vulgarities, obscenities and other no-no's aimed at keeping tags out of the gutter. The Baltimore Sun requested the information last week, hoping to share what the MVA doesn't want you to see on the road.
And we'd love to, except the vast majority of objectionables aren't remotely fit for a family publication.
The list began decades ago, starting with "common sense" entries from staff, says MVA spokesman Philip Dacey. It has grown as rejects have been added. Now when someone applies for a vanity tag online, a computer checks to see if there is a block, though some slip through.
State law allows the MVA to deny tags that have a scatological or sexual meaning; use curse words, epithets or obscenities; carry a "fraudulent or deceptive purpose" (FBI and CIA are banned); refer to illegal acts (sorry, no HEROIN or KILLALL) or convey messages about a group's race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
Just being offensive to someone isn't enough, Dacey says. That's why SUX2BU joined the ranks of Maryland's 88,000 approved vanity tags. "It seems like it's more of a statement, just a personal view of the world," he says, adding that employees use judgment in "gray areas."
The MVA occasionally gets input from an unlikely source: the prison inmates who make the plates at Maryland Correctional Enterprises. "Sometimes they'll be quality control," Dacey says. "They'll call us and say, 'Hey, this combination is a drug reference or a sex reference.'"
The truth is, the apparent meaning of many entries that are already on the objectionable list does not exactly jump out at you. At first blush, 6ULDV8 looks like a random jumble of characters. (Upon closer inspection, perhaps it is an abbreviation for "sexual deviant.")
Members of the public sometimes complain about vanity plates. Dacey says someone reported MIERDA, a scatological word in Spanish. The agency reviewed it with the attorney general's office and decided to yank it. But the vehicle owner fought back; his appeal is pending.
Another complaint concerned a tag that contained WTF, on the ground that it's a commonly abbreviated profanity. The MVA sided with the owners, who got the tag years ago and said it was a nod to their WaTerFront property. Besides, AHHWTF was approved. LOLWTF, too, even though it's banned.
The agency's nuh-uh list should soon shrink by at least one. ALLAH shouldn't be on it, Dacey says. He chalked up its inclusion to an "over-cautious" employee. In any case, that tag has been issued.
The list could certainly grow. Although it already covers more than 50 permutations of a familiar word beginning with "a," the agency did green-light PHATAZZ and BAD AZZ, among others. Dacey said those could be ruled off-limits — if someone complained. Or maybe not. "We'd have to look at the context," he said.
Of course, car owners will always have an outlet safely beyond the reach of the MVA: bumper stickers.