License plates requests keep state officials on toes

Sunday, April 25, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- In a job that is part censor and part codebreaker, the Missouri Driver and Vehicle Services Bureau scrutinizes thousands of specialty license plate requests each year, trying to weed out the profanities, the obscenities and the innuendoes.

It's a subjective process, said Jim Whitt, a vehicle services bureau administrator in Jefferson City.

Whitt said he rejects at least five submissions a week, usually because they are deemed too risque.

Some of the losing candidates included license plates reading "PIMPT" and "DEVL-69."

The state of Missouri charges a $15 fee for specialized plates in addition to regular registration costs, generating about $2.3 million for the state each year. About 159,000 personalized plates are currently in use.

"You just use the best judgment under the statutes," Whitt said. "We try to keep the good taste of our citizens in mind when we're looking at those."

Requests for specialty plates are judged by a three-person panel.

State law gives guidelines for what is acceptable. Plates using obvious racial epithets and sexual innuendoes are immediately thrown out. But some do slip through the administrative cracks.

In 1983, a Jefferson City woman sued the state for the right to display plates reading "ARYAN-1."

State law was later amended to reject plates with messages "contrary to public policy," which allowed officials to repeal the plate. But in 2001, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law was unconstitutionally broad and ordered Missouri to reinstate the plate.

Whitt said that some offensive messages are obvious and easy to catch. Others are more covert, requiring a slang dictionary or a mirror before the true meaning can be deciphered.

Norma Hensick, a member of the review panel, compares her work to interpreting a foreign language without a dictionary.

"You read them frontwards. You read them backwards. You try to split them in half," Hensick said. "And the more you review, the more obvious some of them are."

Drivers also can choose from 145 specialty plates divided into organizational, military and collegiate categories.

Still, some innocent requests can be denied.

Shaun Elder was surprised when his request for a St. Louis Blues specialty plate, IZZY69, was denied. He had nicknamed his Isuzu Axiom "Izzy." Elder plays hockey and his jersey number is 69.

The bureau also rejected SINBIN -- slang for the hockey penalty box.

After several months, the state finally approved MYIZZY.

Elder said he won't buy another personalized plate.

"There's quite a bit of hassle to it," he said.

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