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Monday, July 7, 2014

72 license plates rejected by the New Hampshire DMV

NASHUA – A New Hampshire man who petitioned the Supreme Court to have the message “COPSLIE” on his license plate drew statewide attention earlier this year, but he wasn’t the only driver whose request for a vanity license plate was turned down by the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The DMV released a list of 72 vanity license plate requests that it rejected last year. The requests ranged from the suggestive (one person in Nashua was turned down for the license plate “DEUX-ME”) to the seemingly obscene. ...

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NASHUA – A New Hampshire man who petitioned the Supreme Court to have the message “COPSLIE” on his license plate drew statewide attention earlier this year, but he wasn’t the only driver whose request for a vanity license plate was turned down by the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The DMV released a list of 72 vanity license plate requests that it rejected last year. The requests ranged from the suggestive (one person in Nashua was turned down for the license plate “DEUX-ME”) to the seemingly obscene.

The DMV shot down at least 10 requests for vanity plates from Gate City residents, including one for the letters “BYHATER,” and another from a driver who requested “A55MAN.” Other plate requests that used the letter “F” were rejected as possibly obscene, like one request for the plate “-LMFAO-” – a digital-age acronym expressing zealous laughter.

Most plates were rejected because someone at the DMV determined they were “capable of obscene interpretation.”

Other plates were rejected because they were ethnically or racially derogatory, or a because a reasonable person would find them “offensive to good taste.”

It’s the last category that the DMV used to reject the COPSLIE license plate, which the NH Supreme Court later ruled was protected free speech. The DMV has since placed a temporary stop on all vanity plate requests while it reviews the wording of proposed new rules. The DMV has until mid-July to adopt or reject new guidelines that prohibit language that relates to sex, violence, drugs, gangs or bigotry.

In 2013, Nashua residents experienced more rejections from the DMV than occupants of any other city or town in the state. Manchester trailed behind, with four rejected requests from Queen City residents.

The vanity plate information was obtained by MuckRock.com, a collaborative news website that helps users across the country file requests for public records. The site launched a project earlier this year to collect records about rejected license plates in all 50 states.

MuckRock founder Michael Morisy said the initiative highlights the divide between free speech rights and the limitations placed on government property in the hands of citizens.

Thus far, the website and its users have filed 31 requests for information about rejected license plates (including two in Hawaii).

New Hampshire is one of only eight states that have fulfilled the requests. The others are Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin, Missouri and Texas.

Officials in 12 other states indicated they don’t have any records describing rejected vanity license plates. Only Utah declined to release its records to MuckRock, citing privacy restrictions.

Morisy said he doesn’t believe there are right or wrong answers in terms of how states regulate vanity plates, but it can be useful to compare how decisions are made across the country.

MuckRock’s project also tests each state’s willingness to comply with public records laws.

“We always think it’s good to highlight best practices as well as sort of unveil worst practices,” he said.

Decisions to accept or reject vanity plates in New Hampshire came under scrutiny earlier this year in a case heard by the state Supreme Court.

Justices determined in May that staff from the state DMV violated the free speech rights of a man who wanted to display the phrase “COPSLIE” on his license plate. The court concluded the DMV’s rules on plate messages were too vague to enforce.

MuckRock contacted officials in New Hampshire on May 7 to request a list of all personalized license plate number applications rejected in 2013. The site asked for information about the reason for the rejection, the make and model of the vehicle for which the plate was intended and the location of the applicant.

In response, the state compiled 83 pages of material. Only 72 pages were disclosed; the remaining 11 pages were entirely redacted.

David M. Hilts, legal counsel for the commissioner of the Department of Safety, wrote in an email that material was redacted because “disclosure would constitute an invasion of privacy.” Information about the make and model of vehicles also was withheld because releasing it would violate the state’s “Driver Privacy Act,” according to Hilts.

The state provided the records to MuckRock by email on June 30, charging the website $72 for an electronic copy of the material.

Discussing the redactions, Hilts said Thursday that some records provided to him by the DMV were exempt from public disclosure because they were not responsive to MuckRock’s request.

“The materials that are redacted are not denials of registration applications,” he said.

Material from The Associated Press and reporting by Telegraph staff writer Jim Haddadin was used in this report. Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).