We sent a Freedom of Information Act request for the list of plates Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles rejected in 2018, along with the reasons why. While the state didn’t provide individual reasons, it points to its guidelines, which disallow, among other things, messages that are profane, sexually explicit, violent, describe genitals, drug use, or illegal activity, or are in my favorite category, “Excretory-related.”
Still, there’s a lot that aren’t immediately apparent. Sadly, the mysteries tend to evaporate the longer you read. You learn to read backwards (“ELOHA,” “ELH22A”). You marvel at the indomitable human spirit that keeps trying to sneak a version of “deez nutz” past the bureaucrats (“DEEZNTS,” “DIZNUT,” “DZNUTS2,” “D3NUT5,” “DSZNTS,” DZNUTZS”). You wonder why anyone would want a license plate that says “DRTYVAJ.”
All proposed messages first go through software that takes into account 30,000 instances of objectionable messaging, says Brandy Brubaker, a spokesperson for the Virginia DMV. Any message deemed questionable then goes before a panel of DMV employees selected for diversity–people of different ages, backgrounds, from various parts of the state, and whenever possible, people who speak different languages. In fact, some letters seem to be red flags for Virginia. Good luck getting anything through with an “F,” a “B,” a “D,” the number 69, or “AF.”
A rejection doesn’t mean it’s over—so if Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz was the person who couldn’t get “BALZ” on his car, all is not lost—and once a rejection is issued, an applicant has the opportunity to request a hearing, Brubaker says. Still, a standard applies: The message may not be interpreted by a reasonable person to violate the state’s guidelines.
You are not home free if you still somehow manage to slip your edgy message past these goalies. DMV can recall your plate if someone complains, Brubaker says. And it’s important to remember that “Language is a living being,” as she notes. Something that wasn’t objectionable a few years ago may develop a different meaning, or be shaded by the addition of, say, a bumper sticker.
2018’s rejected list included fewer angry political messages than I’d have expected in this climate. There was one “FCKTRMP” and another “FUKCNN,” as well as some truly horrid stuff around race and hating one’s ex (apparently a big concern for Virginia vanity plate consumers). There’s nothing wrong with having some kinds of fun with politics: Virginia briefly saw quite a few variants on “COVFEFE,” Brubaker says, and most of those were fine.
Usually, she says, the requests reflect people’s personalities with little issue. “The majority of the requests we see are legitimate and fun,” Brubaker says. And then there are these:
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