From Jesus to Hitler to anti-abortion slogans, there is no end to the politics of the plates-license plates, that is.
From Jesus to Hitler to anti-abortion slogans, there is no end to the politics of the plates—license plates, that is.
Recently, a United States circuit court judge overruled a Vermont statute that said you can’t use your license plate to send religious messages. The case in point was a would-be 2004 plate saying "JN36TN"—which meant John 3:16, according to its owner Shawn Byrne. The judge who overturned the anti-religion statute said that since other types of personal beliefs and affiliations were all OK—such as “THINKPOS” and “ARMYMOM”—there’s no reason a religious message shouldn’t be allowed as well.
Though they make Twitter seem like a Russian novel, and they’ve long been a source of humor, vanity plates are also a front in the free-speech wars. Cases like the Vermont ruling show that there is no writing genre so small that people won’t use it to express themselves and become litigious. Vanity plates also provide an interesting study in language compression and a perfect example of the inherent ambiguity of language.
Like every other issue left to the states, there’s a lot of variation in vanity-plate rules across our enormous country, but a common denominator seems to be the issue of interpretation. For example, the New York state vanity rules includes this command: “You must explain what the combination [of letters and numbers] means or what the combination represents.” Such explanations can reveal or hide the truth, and they could’ve made the Vermont case a total non-issue.
As Andrew Cohen writes, Vermont initially denied “JN36TN” as a plate “because Byrne's supplied meaning indicated his intent to refer to the biblical passage John 3:16. However, as Byrne argues, and the record supports, Vermont would have approved that very same combination had Byrne supplied a secular meaning for it—e.g., `[M]y name is John, I am 36, [and] I was born in Tennessee.'" (It could also mean “Join the 36th Transcendent Nunnery,” which I just made up. I don’t envy the vanity-plate overlords who have to read the tea leaves and judge the motives of vanity-plates-wanters.)
With interpretation being such a sticky issue, it allows some to get away with plates that are creepy at best. I’m thinking of the South Dakota person with the “FUHRER” plate who disingenuously pointed to the literal German meaning of “leader” while completely ignoring the genocide-ridden meaning the entire world knows: Hitler. Such clinging to original meaning is common and always misguided: Sure, the swastika may have originated as a symbol of peace, but that meaning has been utterly destroyed. Original meaning doesn’t mean much, because meanings change. A less disturbing case involved a tofu-loving Denver vegan who picked the plate "ILVTOFU" to support her favorite food. If you think hard enough about those last two letters, another meaning comes to mind; the plate was denied.
A vanity-plate novice might be surprised how many types of plates there are. The above cases are in the same genre as the “ASSMAN” episode of Seinfeld, when Kramer mistakenly received a proctologist’s plates. Though “vanity” is a perfect word for such plates, they go by “personalized” or “custom” plates, too. There are also historical plates, vintage plates, antique plates, exhibit plates, and picture plates: These all feature some writing or images in the non-numbers parts of the plate, and they’ve been just as controversial.
At the First Amendment Center, David L. Hudson Jr. traces the issue back to a 1976 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that it was OK for a New Hampshire couple to obscure their state’s “Live Free or Die” motto, because they preferred to Die Unfree or Live, I guess. Plates with anti-abortion messages and Confederate flags—plus messages such as “GETOSAMA” and “MPEACHW”—have also raised hubbubs. Many more cases and examples can be found here.
In The New York Times, Richard S. Chang made an observation I wish I could take credit for: “It's a wonder states put up with all of this trouble to continue the service. One big reason: vanity and specialty plates generate millions of dollars in revenue for the states every year.” Yep, there’s nothing like wads of cash to make mountains of hassle seem like molehills. And for anyone who wants to create their own vanity plate, or start text messaging, or just be very, very annoying to the rest of us, here’s a list of abbreviations intended to aid the vain. If you like XNTRK RYTN, you might even find the list 1DRFL