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‘CNSRD AF’: PennDot’s weird and inconsistent vanity plate rejections

Why Pennsylvania’s criteria for denying vanity plates trample free expression
Pennsylvania license plate reading, "CNSRD AF"

Fans of Seinfeld may remember the episode where Kramer accidentally receives vanity plates for his car that read “ASSMAN.” He is upset about it at first, but then begins to enjoy the perks — including enthusiastic shout-outs on the street and the ability to park in doctors’ spaces by claiming to be a proctologist. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

But none of it would have happened if Kramer lived in Pennsylvania today.

In a Feb. 22 article for The Philadelphia Inquirer, columnist Stephanie Farr details the wide array of personal license plate applications rejected by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, or PennDot, as well as the methods by which the department makes its decisions:

To make sure vanity plates don’t cross the line, PennDot staffers check them against an internet acronym dictionary, a slang/euphemism dictionary, translations from foreign languages, and upside down and reverse readings of requested configurations, PennDot spokesperson Brandon Glorioso said via email.

Plates “cross the line” when they meet one or more of PennDot’s 16 criteria for denying applications. These include plates that are “​​potentially misleading to law enforcement,” “previously issued or almost identical to another plate previously issued so as to create confusion,” or “likely to interfere with the primary purpose of registration marks.”

But there are other, more vague criteria that should concern anyone wary of government censorship. 

PennDot also regularly rejects vanity plates it considers “profane, lewd, lascivious, obscene, or vulgar.” It also rejects plates that contain “an expression of contempt for or ridicule or superiority of a class of persons, including a particular ethnic or other group,” use “words which inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” or display “sexual innuendo or sexual connotations.”

In reviewing the list of 2,872 rejected vanity plates, Farr says she gained “insight into a Pennsylvanian’s mind.” 

We think the rejections say much more about the minds of the censors.

Pennsylvania license plate reading, "YER MOM"

Just consider: What exactly constitutes “profane” seven-letter messages on a license plate, or what sorts of messages have “sexual connotations”? Whose sensibilities are we using to determine whether and which words “inflict injury” or “incite an immediate breach of the peace”? As always, the question becomes, “Who decides? And who decides who decides?” 

Given how loosely one can interpret the criteria, whose desk your application ends up on — and what sort of mood they’re in — can make all the difference.

Examples of rejected plates include swear words in multiple languages; “offensive” words spelled backwards, like “SINEP,” or with numbers in place of letters, like “C00TER”; and any potential plate ending in “AF,” the abbreviation for the colloquial intensifier “as fuck”: “GRITTYAF,” “JRZY AF,” and “DELCO AF,” for example. Multiple variations of Kramer’s own “ASSMAN” made the no-go list as well.

So-called “filthy words” of the George Carlin variety will of course also fail muster, but even vanity plates with references to them, such as “GFY TRMP” or “FJB LGB” — code for “Fuck Joe Biden, Let’s go Brandon” — have been denied.

Give a censor a word and they’ll eventually take a paragraph. 

Sophomoric references to bodily functions you’d hear on a typical network television program also seem too much for PennDot’s censors, including “GOT POOP,” “PASNGAS,” and “TURD.”

And then there are plates whose rejections seem to defy any reasonable explanation, like “CAMRY,” “CHOWDAH,” and “GANDALF.”

Trying to figure out why the name of a wizard from “The Lord of the Rings” scandalized someone at PennDot showcases the problem: the decision-making of censors is necessarily subjective, arbitrary, and bound to be inconsistent.

FIRE’s own staffers have seen plates like “YERMOM,” “DTHSTAR” and “2 GRRLS” on the streets of Philadelphia. Given what’s on PennDot’s rejection list, you’d imagine messages like these wouldn’t make the cut, but somehow they didn’t cause upset the way the Bostonian pronunciation of “chowder” did.

This would all be laughable if it weren’t for the dangerous precedent it sets. In 2022, FIRE filed an amicus curiae — “friend of the court” — brief in Tennessee after a state court determined that vanity plates represent government speech rather than speech of the car’s owner. As a result, the court said, the state can reject any plate that authorities decide is contrary to “good taste and decency.” This, as FIRE stated at the time, “is flatly wrong”:

Because the vanity plates are not the government speaking, the First Amendment imposes limits on what restrictions states can impose on vehicle owners’ messages. Wherever that line may be drawn, a standard of “good taste and decency” won’t cut it. As FIRE’s amicus brief explains, vague definitions like these give officials free rein to censor any speech they — or some member of the public — might dislike.

Pennsylvania’s standards are admittedly better than Tennessee’s. Tennessee’s “good taste and decency” standard is far more vague than the handful of more verbose restrictions PennDot outlines. 

But that doesn’t make PennDot’s criteria reasonable or constitutional. If vanity license plates are not “government speech,” then Pennsylvania’s criteria are subject to First Amendment scrutiny. That means each restriction would have to be both viewpoint-neutral, reasonable, and consistently applied. It’s doubtful that Pennsylvania’s standards would pass constitutional muster — and judging from PennDot’s rejection list, it doesn’t seem like the commonwealth’s criteria yield consistent, coherent decisions.

Give a censor a word and they’ll eventually take a paragraph. 

While some of Pennsylvania’s restrictions may survive First Amendment scrutiny, any limits on expressions of, for example, “contempt for or ridicule or superiority of a class of persons” — sometimes called “hate speech” — will lead to the government’s increasingly egregious and self-serving suppression of protected speech. This was the case with the Michigan driver whose “ACAB” plate was revoked for offending the police, and the New Hampshire driver whose “COPSLIE” plate was rejected while a plate reading “GR8GOVT” went through with no trouble.

It begins with vanity license plates. It ends where we let it.

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