Editorial: Vanity of Vanities; Humble Thoughts on License Plates

The New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles has temporarily stopped issuing vanity license plates, as staff writer Lauren Bender reported last week. This does not strike us as terrible news. All the world could do with a little less vanity and a lot more humility.

That, however, is not the reason for the DMV’s decision. Rather, the state Supreme Court declared in May that the department’s rule for deciding what plates were acceptable was unconstitutionally vague. No wonder: It provided that no plate would be issued that a reasonable person would find “offensive to good taste” — a term not further defined.

The challenge to the rule was brought by David Montenegro, a Rochester resident who apparently does not adhere to the maxim that there is no disputing taste. He wanted a vanity plate that read COPSLIE, which the DMV deemed offensive. Montenegro has also sought other wording, including GOVTLAZ and GOVTSUX. From this we infer that even if he knows his free-speech rights, wit may not be his long suit.

Anyway, the court ruled that “because the ‘offensive to good taste’ standard is not susceptible of objective definition, the restriction grants DMV officials the power to deny a proposed vanity registration plate because it offends particular officials’ subjective idea of what is ‘good taste.’ ”

In light of this judicial rebuke, the department has returned to the drawing board to fashion a new rule in an attempt to pass constitutional muster. It proposes to ban profanity and language related to sex, violence, drugs, gangs or bigotry. While the rule-making process proceeds, applications are being accepted in the expectation that they will be processed once a new standard is in place, and the department will again be able to collect its $40 fee for issuing them.

It is a mystery to us why any motorist would wish to call attention — especially the attention of law enforcement authorities — to his or her car by displaying a message related to, for example, violence, drugs or gangs. But then again, we don’t get the whole concept of the state allowing drivers to make a moving billboard out of an official identification tag. Government ought not to be in the business of regulating speech of even the innocuous kind. After all, just about any message can be conveyed these days through the simple expedient of a bumper sticker.

More than that, are there not adequate other opportunities in the digital age for self-display? Facebook? Twitter? Selfies? At least no one is obliged to look at what is posted in those contexts, or waste time trying to figure what cryptic or clever message a license plate is trying to convey.

The DMV should just stop issuing vanity plates and recall the ones that are already out there. If the latter is not possible, then how about a buy-back program similar to the ones some cities conduct to get guns out of circulation? And we recommend that once they are collected, the state conduct a bonfire of the vanity plates.