Jake Wimberley's License Plates

Controversial Issues

Being as many folks don't even know what their license plate looks like, it is a bit surprising to me that people get so outraged about the design of their state's plates, or the slogan or other features used on them. Perhaps even people who don't pay attention to plates know that other people are.

The two plates on the left in the photo above have been controversial because of the slogan they use. The Kentucky plate was controversial because it was perceived to be, well, corny (and I don't blame them). The California plate exemplifies one other source of controversy: the unintentional spelling of a "loaded" word.

Washington, D.C. has no vote in Congress, but its citizens (residents) still pay federal taxes, which understandably angers many of them. The first license plates bearing the slogan were issued in 2000. The plates themselves have not been especially controversial in D.C., but the concept and proposed solutions (such as making D.C. a state) have proven controversial elsewhere. As President, Bill Clinton supposedly had the Presidential limousine fitted with the plates; George W. Bush chose not to continue the practice. This particular plate, like all currently issued D.C. plates and plates manufactured for the US Government, is not embossed, but rather fully printed (silkscreened).

Live Free or Die, the state motto of New Hampshire, began appearing on its license plates in 1971. You can read the whole story at Wikipedia, but basically, a Jehovah's Witness felt the motto infringed on his religious beliefs, and covered the motto on his own plate. He was convicted of illegally altering a license plate, but took the case to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling. The motto continues to be printed on license plates today, though nobody is obligated to allow it to be seen.

The Kentucky plate features a smiley-faced sun rising over a mountainous landscape suggestive of the eastern half of the state. The slogan says, "It's that friendly." Some Kentuckians were uneasy with displaying the admittedly juvenile sun. I read comments from people who had been issued the plate, indicating some felt it was just an unflattering design, and that some others didn't like being forced to appear friendly to outsiders by the slogan. Traveling around Kentucky during the base's brief run, I apparently encountered a few in the latter group, as I noticed some plates had been altered with a frowny-face sticker (complete with eyebrows to make it an angry face, not a sad face) covering the sun. The base was issued in 2003, but replaced starting in 2005 due to the poor reception. Kentucky typically goes 6 to 7 years between bases.

Finally, the California plate uses the three-letter combination GAY as part of its serial. Many states have long been wary of using vowels on license plates for this reason. That this combination would appear on a California plate, even if the word had not fully developed its modern connotation at the time, is a little odd. In early days of electronic computing, California supposedly hired IBM to produce a list of all possible three-letter English words, or combinations that might be interpreted like a longer word with an undesirable meaning. I am not sure if that is even true, or when it happened if so. Whether the modern usage was widespread enough in California in the 1970s for this combination to offend anyone, I don't know. I'm pretty confident it has been removed from rotations nationwide by now. Other unintentional words have caused uproar from time to time. Tennessee deliberately avoided the vowels (and Y) on its 1989 and 1995 bases, but to increase the number of usable combinations, the state did use A, E, U, and Y in combinations on the 2001 base. They should have borrowed California's list before loading the dies. Some residents of Giles County were annoyed when they received plates bearing the combination FAT. I believe the state recalled all the plates in that series. Another slightly more interesting case comes from Florida, where during Republican governor Jeb Bush's administration, a staunchly Democratic county in the state received boxes of plates in a block including the combination JEB. Some residents smelled a rat. Who knows if the assignment was intentional.

I will also note that the Kentucky plate uses my initials.

last updated 2011.11.03 :: return home