Remember the license plate game?

It’s that clever diversion parents have used for generations to help kids pass the time on long drives by tabulating all the different license plates they see. Some count the states, while others keep an eagle eye out for unusual words or phrases on vanity plates.

Which brings us to “An Act To Create Appropriate Standards for the Secretary of State To Follow When Approving the Assignments of Vanity Registration Plates.”

Sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the bill is now before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which Diamond co-chairs. At a hearing on Tuesday, it drew support from Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, who broke ranks with her predecessor, Matthew Dunlap, by saying enough is enough with all the F-bombs and other vulgarities parading up and down Maine’s roadways.

“Today in Maine, we’re the wild, wild West of license plates,” Bellows said in an interview Wednesday. “The license plate game is not something that parents or grandparents might feel comfortable playing anymore with their kid who’s just learned to read.”

To prove her point, Bellows provided lawmakers a sampling of the 421 nasty plates she and her staff recently culled from the more than 119,000 Maine vanity plates in circulation. I’d list a few of them here, but then I’d come under fire from my editors and outraged grandmothers from Kittery to Fort Kent.


Let’s just say they’re crude, mostly sexual in nature and proof positive of the vanity-plate message my wife chose a few years back for her beloved 1979 Volkswagen Super Beetle: WRDS MTR.

Rules or no rules, the offensive plates raise a head scratcher of a question: Who are these people? What motivates someone to drive around in a vehicle with an obscenity proudly screwed onto the rear end?

Meet Dr. Timothy Jay, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a world-renowned expert on cursing, which he’s studied since he first looked around some 50 years ago and saw no significant scientific inquiry into why some people have dirty mouths.

“It comes down to sensibility and personality,” Jay said in an interview. “Some people are outspoken, troublemakers, and they like to defy authority.”

It’s not hard, Jay posits, to draw a straight line from the child who blurts out a swear word in class just to provoke a reaction, to the grown adult “who drives a Ford with a cartoon of a guy pissing on a Chevy. It’s defiance, but it’s also attention grabbing.”

And these days, alas, it’s more commonplace.


Jay doesn’t necessarily see a rise in the percentage of people who live in the linguistic gutter. But he can easily identify the ever-growing number of opportunities – social media, cable television, smartphones – to bask in foul language with little worry of being held socially accountable.

Jay’s research goes beyond the simple use of foul language to the reasons it’s considered foul in the first place. The fact that so many obscenities are rooted in sexual acts, he noted, stems from the Puritan ethic that centuries ago forbade any and all mention of sex.

“The deeper issue for me is the whole taboo around sexuality and how we are such a prudish country” when it comes to talking about sex, he said.

Jay was a personal friend of George Carlin, the late comedian famous for his 1972 monologue “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” While he can argue either side of the proper-language debate, Jay leans toward the belief that government should refrain from imposing limits on all but the most dangerous forms of speech.

“What you can put on a T-shirt or a license plate is just like the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “If you can suppress language, then you can suppress thought.”

Bellows, a former executive director of (irony alert) the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, insists that cracking down on potty-mouthed license plates isn’t about suppressing free speech. Rather, she said, it’s simply a matter of state government not being a party to the dissemination of speech that many find offensive.


“I’m not proposing that we limit bumper stickers or signs or flags that people may want to fly on their vehicle,” Bellows said. “I’m not looking to be the arbiter of offensive or indecent speech. What I’m looking to do is take the F-word off the road, as well as racial or other epithets.”

Will it help? Will forbidding a vanity plate that “connotes breasts, genitalia, the pubic area or buttocks or relates to sexual or eliminatory functions,” to name a few of the proposed restrictions, make Maine a more civilized place?

Some would argue that after four years of a president who regularly uttered vulgarities in public – and in doing so sent a clear signal to millions that there’s nothing wrong with that – cleaning up Maine’s license plates would amount to a mere drop in the cultural bucket.

More interestingly, would the proposed crackdown withstand judicial scrutiny?

Former Secretary of State Dunlap, when he dropped almost all restrictions on vanity plates back in 2015, said he feared that prohibiting any language beyond incitements to violence would be struck down by the courts as an infringement on the First Amendment.

Sticking to his guns a few years later, Dunlap told the Portland Press Herald, “If someone is dumb enough to put (expletive) on their license plates, they live with the consequences. If you’re going to meet a date, or meet someone’s parents for the first time and you have that on your plate, where’s that going to get you? But where is the state’s compelling interest (in preventing that)?”

Bellows disagrees. Any new rules, she said, would conform with the well-vetted guidance of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and would be based not on impeding free speech, but on the state government’s refusal to play an active role in promulgating vulgarity.

Either way, someone out there will inevitably take the state to court – backed, in all likelihood by the ACLU of Maine – to fight for his God-given right to drive up the Maine Turnpike and teach those kids playing the license plate game a lesson they’ll never forget.

I can’t wait to interview that (expletive).

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