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Motorists in Maine resort to naughty vanity license plates


AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A Maine vegan whose custom license plate contains the word “tofu” is one of several motorists caught in a state crackdown on vulgar license plates.

U.S. car owners can pay an extra fee to modify license plates, sparking creativity and personality but creating headaches for state officials who have to decide what is acceptable.

For years, Maine allowed people to put just about any combination of letters and numbers on their license plates, including words and phrases that other states would ban. But the state decided to change course and this year recalled 274 plates it deemed inappropriate.

Some people fight back.

So far, the state has rejected all appeals, including one filed by the vegan whose license plate referenced tofu.

The state concluded that the “LUVTOFU” license plate could have been seen as a reference to sex rather than admiration for bean curd. The motorist insisted there was no doubt about his intent, as the back of his car had several tofu-related stickers on it.

“It’s my protest against eating meat and animal products,” Peter Starotecki, the disgruntled motorist, said after a Zoom session with a hearing examiner from the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Heather Libby and her best friend reluctantly gave up their matching license plates that contained a word for a bitch.

“People are so sensitive these days,” said Jonesport’s Libby, after a hearing examiner rejected her appeal. “I just think it’s silly.”

When the state effectively ended the review process for so-called “vanity” license plates in 2015, some residents obtained their license plates with all kinds of profanity, including F-bombs, either spelled or abbreviated.

Residents in a state known for being laconic and even-tempered soon carried uncensored signs linking the F-word to “snow,” “haters,” and “ALS” — the incurable nerodegenerative disease.

After license plate liberties spiraled out of control, the Maine legislature directed the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to reinstate a system for vetting the state’s approximately 120,000 vanity license plates.

The new rules prohibit derogatory references to age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability. Also prohibited is language that incites violence or is considered obscene.

Reinstated as censors, Maine’s vehicle officers are now walking a similar tightrope to their counterparts in other states.

In 2020, a federal judge ruled that California’s ban on signs “offensive to good taste and decency” was too broad and violated constitutional rights to free expression. Earlier this year, Texan officials rejected a license plate similar to Starotecki’s – “LVTOFU” – prompting reprimands from an animal rights group.

Maine’s rules were narrowly crafted to comply with the law, officials said.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said motorists are free to express themselves, but she said they should do it on a bumper sticker, not a state-issued license plate.

“We have a public interest in keeping expressions and words that are blasphemous or that could incite violence off the roads,” she said.

She said she was pleased that most motorists have waived their offending number plates without a fight. Only 13 appeals have been filed so far, but there could be more.

If a motorist loses an appeal to a hearing examiner, they can file a lawsuit in Superior Court. So far no one has taken that step.

As for Starotecki, he was offered another license plate that had become available, V3GAN. But he decided he was done with vanity plates. He’s waiting for a new license plate – a boring one chosen at random by the state.

Libby, who lost her B-word board, got a custom one in honor of her dog Zeus, named after the mythical god of thunder. “That might be offensive to someone because it’s a Greek god,” she joked. “But I hope not.”


Follow David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.