Tough Luck for the Irish

Offensiveness, like beauty, is generally in the eye of the beholder. At least that's what the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles is discoverning in its effort to banish bad taste from vanity license plates.
by | April 2001

Offensiveness, like beauty, is generally in the eye of the beholder. At least that's what the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles is discoverning in its effort to banish bad taste from vanity license plates.

Inevitably, there are people who try to sneak jokes and obscenities past DMV officials. Some states devote full-time staffers to the task of reading license plate requests--slang dictionaries in hand--to keep smut and inflammatory language off the plates. Several states share a "no-no" list of about 8,000 unsuitable words and phrases, including many that can offend in a foreign language or when read backwards in rearview mirrors.

There's always something new to disgust someone, however, as in the case of the Superior, Wisconsin, man who put "1ON ICE" on his used hearse, or the California urologist who snuck "NOP CME" past the censors. Michigan initially rejected an application for a "HOOKER" plate, but gave in on appeal because it was the driver's last name.

The Vermont legislature last year approved rules designed to take the guesswork out of the process, prohibiting any language that refers to "a race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation." But the flip side of not being able to deride someone's heritage is that you can't celebrate it, either. The DMV there recently drew some critical media attention--and a court challenge--when it denied a Wallingford woman's request for a plate that said, simply, "IRISH."

"I'm not saying it offends me, but certainly the word `Irish' falls within what is prohibited here," says Vermont DMV Commissioner Bonnie L. Rutledge.

That may not be the last word, however. Several legislators have criticized the ruling, and one is even representing the Irish woman pro bono.