May 5, 2022

Secretary Bellows releases draft rule regarding obscene license plates

The Secretary also opens a public comment period and announces public hearing

AUGUSTA — Secretary of State Shenna Bellows has released the draft rule implementing a 2021 law that established the Secretary’s authority to recall or refuse to issue vanity license plates which meet certain criteria, including profanities and obscenities, certain derogatory references, and references to sexual acts.

“Incitement to violence, profanity, ethnic, racial, religious, or other slurs, or reference to illegal or criminal activity – all of which unfortunately can be seen on Maine registration plates today – are all directly contrary to the public interest,” said Secretary Bellows. “The First Amendment protects your right to have any bumper sticker you want, but it doesn’t force the state to issue official registration plates that subject children in our communities to obscenity or profanity.”

Last year, the Legislature unanimously passed LD 130, “An Act To Create Appropriate Standards for the Secretary of State To Follow When Approving the Assignments of Vanity Registration Plates,” sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, which Governor Janet Mills signed into law.

“Our staff regularly receives complaints from Mainers who are shocked that these messages are displayed on our roadways, and the Legislature heard their concerns,” said Deputy Secretary of State for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles Cathie Curtis. “The state-issued registration plate is not an appropriate place for these messages.”

Under the proposed new rule, the Division of Vehicle Services within the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) will review existing vanity registration plates, including in response to complaints from the public, and assess applications for new ones. Staff will recall or reject plates which:

  • Falsely suggest an association with a public institution or a government or a government agency;
  • Duplicate another plate;
  • Encourage violence or that may result in an act of violence or other unlawful activity because of the content of the language or configuration of letters and numbers;
  • Are profane or obscene;
  • Make a derogatory reference to age, race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry or national origin, religion or physical or mental disability;
  • Connote genitalia or relate to sexual acts; or
  • Contain language or a configuration of characters that include forms of slang terms, abbreviations, phonetic spellings, or mirror images of a word or term otherwise prohibited by this section, even if expressed in a language other than English.

The review process will be conducted by professional staff of the BMV who will be part of a Vanity Plate Review Committee. Registrants whose applications for vanity plates are denied will have the opportunity to request a hearing.

The full proposed rule is attached.

Comments will be accepted via an online submission form, email, mail or in person through 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 6:

  • Email, using subject line “Public Comment”
  • Mail comments to the Secretary of State, Attn: Public Comment, 148 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0148
  • Drop off written comments to the Office of the Secretary of State at the Nash School Building, 103 Sewall St., 2nd floor, Augusta, Maine.

A public hearing will also be held on Friday, May 27 at 10 a.m. in Room 126 of the State House in Augusta (the Transportation Committee room).

Maine’s motor vehicle law had previously been changed in 2015 to allow the Secretary of State to reject only messages that suggest an association with a public institution, are duplicative, or “encourage violence or may result in an act of violence or other unlawful activity.” Prior to 2015, Maine law did allow the Secretary of State to also reject vanity plates that sought to use language with “obscene, contemptuous, profane or prejudicial” messages.