LITTLE ROCK – The co-chairman of a legislative panel suggested Thursday that lawmakers review the rules for what can go on vanity license plates because of concerns raised in Arkansas and lawsuits filed in other states.
Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, said during a joint meeting of the House and Senate transportation committees that an official of the state Department of Finance and Administration had asked that the Legislature review the list of words banned from a personalized license plate.
“There’s some concern about some language that’s not appropriate for minors and there are some items, also, that may be social issues, as well,” Barnett said after the committee meeting.
He said he was concerned about possible legal action by someone who was denied a request.
“The Legislature is probably going to have to address this at some point,” he said.
John Theis, DFA’s commissioner for policy and legal, said he had discussed the issue with Barnett because of concerns he had recently about a lawsuit in Georgia.
Earlier this year a man in Georgia sued that state after he was denied three requests for a personalized plate that would have read GAYGUY, 4GAYLIB, or GAYPWR.
That state’s revenue department rejected them because they were on the state’s “bad tag” list. The man filed suit, claiming his First Amendment right to free speech was being violated.
The man and the state later agreed to a settlement. He was allowed pick one of the requests that had been rejected — he chose GAYPWR — and the state agreed to issue an emergency regulation clarifying the standards for vanity tags.
Under the emergency regulation, approved in June, references to weapons, drugs and alcohol are prohibited on vanity plates. Georgia has four months to decide whether to keep the emergency regulation or come up with another.
Theis said employees at DF&A who review applications for vanity license plates review recent case law from around the country to determine if the requested wording is appropriate.
“There are two tests the state has to follow,” Theis said. “One is a rational basis test, there is a rational reason for denying this plate. That usually is offensive language, profanity, scatological type comments, those kinds of things.
“The second is whether the plate’s view point is neutral. It can’t promote one view point and not another. Those are the tests we balance with each requests against someone’s First Amendment right to say whatever they want to say on these things.”
He said he told Barnett that DF&A regularly gets requests for vanity license plates that need to be reviewed.
“This has been going on forever. The only thing that has changed is folks are pushing the envelope more and more each year to come up with something cute, and that’s what we’re seeing in Georgia,” he said.
David Foster, DF&A’s assistant commissioner of operations and administration, said generally if an unusual request is made, several employees review it to determine if it meets the criteria.
Foster said DF&A personnel have develop a list of words and phrases that employees who review vanity license plate requests need to watch for, and that the department also refers to the Urban Dictionary website.
“There are some very creative people out there,” Foster said.