Maine is deciding how to rid the roads of vulgar vanity plates
October 16 - Dave Wardamasky has at least until winter before the state can reclaim his vanity plate under a new law banning "vulgar" dishes. He is ready to fight this decision.
The 56-year-old from Blue Hill was informed in 2019 that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable disease of the nervous system, and that he had received a "FUCKALS" record last year. He believes that if he meets one of his grandchildren, he will be lucky. He's likely not going to dance at his daughter's wedding.
Under a Maine bill passed earlier this summer that goes into effect Monday, Wardamasky and others with plates filled with swear words, crude references, slang, or words meant to sound like them will likely have to abandon their plates at some point.
"I find it outrageous that people are outraged by a monosyllabic word rather than a deadly disease for which there is no treatment," said Wardamasky.
Individuals who have the license plates can keep them at least a little longer as Secretary of State Shenna Bellows' office begins enacting rules that formalize which words are not allowed and how people will be able to oppose license plates that considered too rough for the streets to object. But new, rough questions are being asked and there could be a fight for freedom of expression on the matter.
Bellows, a Democrat, said she understood Wardamasky's feelings. However, she stuck to her argument that the state cannot be compelled to use language that it finds offensive to use on its property. A bumper sticker or vinyl sticker will get the message across from everyone, she said.
"There is no national manual that says, 'These words are fine and they are not,'" she said. "It's a complicated process that we take very seriously."
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles staff met this summer and fall to reflect on how the law should be implemented. This included reviewing a list of known suspects and other potential offenders, as well as license plate recall and how appeals work, Bellows said. Those who disagree with the state's decisions have 14 days to appeal under the law.
The rulemaking will allow the public to weigh their feelings directly. It is likely to meet opposition from Bellows' former employer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, for criticizing the law as violating freedom of expression. The group's concerns were instrumental in a law change in 2015 that resulted in Maine's previous laissez-faire stance on vanity signs.
In the meantime, anyone requesting a plate that may fail the pattern after Monday will be putting that plate on hold at least until the rulemaking process is complete. You can get a standard top or pick a cleaner vanity top to have a viable registry, Bellows said.
The review process is likely to continue as people test the state's borders. Meanwhile, Wardamasky said he would hold on to his plate in hopes of teaching people about his illness. When the time comes, he hopes others will fight with him to keep their records.
"Personally, I don't have the financial resources to fight it, but if someone from the ACLU wants to help me, I'm totally on board," he said.
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