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Controversial license plate has state officials considering changes

(Credit: Paul Nelson)

UTAH STATE CAPITOL – Should changes be made in how the Utah Tax Commission reviews possibly offensive license plates?  The commission is still reviewing whether a plate that says “DeportM” should be recalled, but, they’re telling lawmakers there are some things they want to do differently.

Current state statute says the commission can deny “combinations of letters, words or numbers that express affiliations or actions that may be construed to suggest endangerment to the public welfare.”  That rule isn’t as clear as state officials would like.

If you were to scour the online comments about the “DeportM” plate, you would find many people who are furious that it was approved in the first place.  You would also find people who say the plate isn’t offensive in any way.

The big question is, what counts as “offensive?”  Take, for example, the topic of abortion.  Division of Motor Vehicles Director Monte Roberts says if the state were to allow a plate saying “PRO LIFE,” you’d get a wide range of comments from the community.

“You’re going to have people on both sides of that fence, no matter how we choose to decide on that issue,” he says.

Legally, neither the Division of Motor Vehicles nor the Utah Tax Commission is allowed to make the decision of what “offensive” means.  Commission Executive Director Scott Smith says the Supreme Court ruled the community at large has the power to determine what the standards should be.  Smith says this generally works well, but, the controversial plate has pointed out some flaws in the system.

“The safety net for this risk… last week, I thought it was much stronger than I do, today,” Smith says.

When a complaint comes in to the commission, there’s a “decision ladder” of people that take a look at it.  However, if someone higher up on that ladder determined there isn’t a problem, the process would typically end.  Smith says they now want to every complaint about any personalized plate into one system, so more people can review the plate’s history.

“Everyone in that decision ladder will know how many complaints have been coming in.”

Smith believes commission members would have a better understanding of what the general public would consider as decent.

“These changes will ensure that we have a true community standard if we decide to issue a plate,” he says.