Georgia struggles to regulate vanity plates

GUNME?

It’s outlawed in Georgia.

IMNAKED?

That’s prohibited too.

POTHED has been tried; even BGODLY is on the list of banned vanity tag messages maintained by the state.

Putting seven letters or numbers together is an art form among motorists who personalize their license plates. But Georgia officials have their limits, and the list of forbidden combinations is more than 10,200 entries long and growing.

After an Atlanta hairdresser sued the state in January, accusing it of violating his free speech rights by rejecting tag applications for GAYPWR, GAYGUY and 4GAYLIB, the Department of Revenue is taking over the operation from Driver Services and updating plate standards to include appeals and more elaborate rules.

The new policy – up for adoption at a public hearing in Atlanta on Sept. 20 – would prohibit race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation from being “disparaged,” and for the first time ban references to sex, body parts, excrement, bodily fluids, drugs, alcohol and weapons.

“The responsibility for tag and title has jumped around over the years between the departments of Revenue and Dri­ver Services, and we are working to build a more consistent and clearer process that explains why a request is denied and provides people with an opportunity to appeal any decision,” said Nick Genesi, the communications director for the Department of Revenue.

Personalized plates provide a tiny source of revenue – last year Georgia made only $153,000 from vanity tags, which cost drivers an extra $35 a year. But they are a headache for local regulators, who must strike a balance between protecting free speech and shielding drivers’ eyes from naughty puns.

Georgia’s banned vanity tag list has been worked on for a quarter of a century and has been criticized for being ambiguous.

For example, the state has allowed tags reading 2SEXY69 and GUNZZZ, but put MSSEXI and HVYGUNS on the no-no list. Officials approved HATERS, but denied HATERS1. BLKBERI, BLKCHRY and BLCBUTI were cleared, but BLKACE was rejected.

Genesi said the new regulation aims to solve such problems by requiring the Department of Revenue to review the list of banned messages at least once a year to ensure it is up to date.

“The list is a work in progress (and) will continually change under the new regulation as things gets added or removed,” Genesi said.

The state will continue to outlaw all profanity, messages that violate copyright or trademark laws or pertain to public office, and references to crime that “might reasonably result in an immediate breach of the peace.”

Further, any message that contains “hate, h8, ha8, hat, haytr, aytr, anti, ante, suck, suk, blow, and 69” will be banned. Plus, all local tag agents are required to consult the English dictionary, phonetic spelling and standard foreign language vocabularies to make sure no new requests fall within a prohibited category. (Sorry, motorists who have plates that read IH8UGA and ANTIPC.)

In the past, if a plate was found on the banned list and rejected, the state would only issue a refund. Now, it’s required to provide a written statement explaining both its decision and how an applicant can appeal the ruling within 30 days to a three-person panel selected by the state revenue commissioner. The board must vote unanimously to overturn a ruling, the proposed policy states.

To Genesi, the revisions are both overdue and amusing.

“It’s hard to know,” he said of determining whether all applicants treat their requests seriously. “All we have is the text on paper and, frankly, we can’t really know.”

SEND YOUR CONCERNS

Comments about the new license plate regulations can be sent via e-mail to comments@dor.ga.gov; by fax to (404) 417-2293; or by mail to Georgia Department of Revenue, 1800 Century Blvd N.E., Suite 15107, Atlanta, GA 30345.

BANNED TAGS LIST

See the forbidden combinations, combinations that have been removed from the ban list and the combinations you could possibly see on the road under the new regulations.

WARNING: May contain offensive content.


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