Ethics Quiz: The Upsetting License Plate

The Utah Division of Motor Vehicles lists standards for vanity plates, based on a statute that “forbids any combination of letters or numbers that ‘may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency or that would be misleading.’”

Plate letter and number combinations that reference drugs, that are “sexual, vulgar, or derogatory,” that  suggest ideas “dangerous to public welfare” or disrespect “race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation,” are not permitted.

Thus it was that Utah high school English teacher Matt Pacenza, driving home, spied  a vanity plate reading “DEPORTM.” As a concerned citizen, he snapped a photo of the personalized plate and posted it to Twitter. (Note: I’m more concerned about drivers taking photos while operating their motor vehicles than about what their plates say, but I’m weird, or so I’m told). The resulting cocial media comments attracted the attention of some state senators as well as the Utah State Tax Commission, which oversees license plate approval. Now the commission says it is reviewing whether the plate violates department guidelines.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the weekend is…

Is there anything wrong with having that license plate on your car?

As a citizen of the state that issues more vanity plates than any other, I have the following comments:

  • Tell me which of the standards the plate above allegedly violates.
  • How big an officious intermeddling jerk do you have to be to set out to make an issue over someone’s non-obscene, ambiguous vanity plate?
  • I was serious about the snap-shot: Matt Pacenza should be cited for reckless driving.
  • A vanity plate owner should get the benefit of the doubt. “DEPORTM” means to me, deport people who should be deported: under our laws, that means illegal immigrants. Ergo the plate means NFORCIT, as in “enforce the law.” Would that plate bother Matt?
  • What is the “race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation” being disrespected by the plate? I don’t see one.
  • I’d be perfectly happy to see vanity plates banned, ending this nonsense forever. If states are going to permit them (and earn  the extra revenue generated by the kind of people who want them and don’t get me started on that), however, they had better avoid viewpoint censorship, and that’s what banning this plate would be.

Finally, if you find yourself being outraged because you disagree with what you think a license plate might be saying, you, not the plate, are the problem.

Do you think BITEME1 would be an acceptable plate in Utah? Would Matt be triggered?


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15 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Upsetting License Plate

  1. I wonder if it was the reference to the Gadsden flag on the license plate frame that really knocked Matt out of his safe space.

  2. I can’t see how it violates a rule.

    I also can’t imagine how that car won’t be keyed enough times to be down to bare metal in a month.

  3. Can’t help wondering if we had 20 million Brexiteers here illegally if the call would have been made or perhaps even teacher Matt would have the plate.

  4. This is political speech so government cannot ban it. Because the person pays extra for the plate is no different than paying government for a permit to hold a rally or protest.

  5. If the end up taking action, I wonder what they’d say about DEPORTS or DPORTES or DEPORTE since “Deportes” is Spanish for “Sports”.

    It would be mildly entertaining (to me) to watch someone like Matt fall into this quagmire.

  6. Clearly the alleged offense here is disrespecting the ethnic heritage and political affiliation of illegal aliens. Clearly this is anti-hispanic, because that is the majority of illegal aliens. And it’s anti-Democratic Party, because open borders and willful disregard of immigration law are on their secret menu of policy positions. It disrespects a major constituency of Democrats, illegal aliens, who can’t legally vote for them, but nevermind.
    The license plate BITEME1 would also be inappropriate, because it otherizes the toothless community, who have to use dentures. They already have a hard time getting through daily life and they do not need to be reminded by the ableists in our society that they are less than whole. Stigmatizing the denture-abled community only strikes to polarize us more, and just helps enable and legitimize President Trump! \s
    I think those could be the arguments of Mr. Pacenza. I hope he is a professional and doesn’t opine on these topics to his pupils.

  7. My first thought was that it is disrespectful to our president — ‘Deport Him’ — but that is protected speech, so no problem. Any other meaning seen there is just someone else’s interpretation.

  8. Honestly, I see nothing wrong with the plate itself. Now, one could make the argument that the person who owns the plate is a jerk, but being a jerk isn’t against the law so far as I know. One could also make the argument that the plate causes a distraction ( as evidenced by the the photo snapped by the ‘concerned’ motorist while in operation of a motor vehicle I assume).

    Concerning Mr Pacenza‘s behavior-I would have to agree that his actions were probably far removed from those of a concerned citizen, and more akin to those of a spiteful member of the famed/infamous ‘Resistance’ (the word ‘salty’ comes to mind).

    However, given the legal restrictions for vanity plates set forth by the great state of Utah, I can see how a legal argument could be made that it clearly is “dangerous to public welfare” (causing a distraction) or that it disrespects the “race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation,” IF one were to interpret its message as ‘anti-immigrant’.

    Again how one interprets it’s message is all a matter of perspectives, and I would be interested in seeing someone prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the plates message was indeed a political one given its ambiguous nature.

    As far as the issue surrounding vanity plates in general-I’m neither for or against them, but personally I find them to be a waste of time and money, and would never indulge in such a thing-but who am I to dictate how another person spends their time or money!

  9. It’s crass. It does nothing to elevate an opinion or discourse. I would put it on par with the football kneeling in it understanding of the message. I would say he is intentionally thumbing his nose in the people that disagree with it, but I see nothing that would violate any rules.

  10. During a campaign debate I really, really want Trump to ask his opponent: “Why do you want to allow white supremacist neo-Nazis, descended from the original Nazi’s free access to the US across our southern border?”

    It seems like the obvious question to me.

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