New rule sets out which vanity plates are 0FFLMTS

GAYGUY, looks like you’re good to go.

GUNSDAD, not so much.

Responding to a lawsuit, the state Department of Revenue has just issued an “emergency” rule spelling out which kinds of vanity license plates are allowed and which are not. The agency is trying to make its rulings more consistent, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out stark inconsistencies, and one driver sued.

Under the old, less specific guidelines, the state had approved G0D4EVR but nixed G0DROKS. It gave the okay to G0TBEER but put the kibosh on L0VWINE. And so on.

“It seemed arbitrary to us,” said Cynthia Counts, a lawyer for James Cyrus Gilbert, whose requested GAYGUY tag was denied, along with 4GAYLIB and GAYPWR.

Gilbert and Counts argued that denying his request also chilled his right to free speech, violating the federal and state constitutions.

“It’s the right result,” Counts said of the settlement. “The state did the right thing.”

Gilbert can soon pick up his GAYPWR tag as part of the settlement, she said. He will also win some money, although he has earmarked all of it for legal fees.

The rule will not become final until after July 9. In the interim the agency will take public comment on it.

Wednesday, state officials would not address specific examples of words that would pass or fail under the new rule, but it seems clear that some tags now on the roads would not be approved under the new framework.

For example, tags with references to guns fell into a gray area before. Now weapons can’t be mentioned.

However, drivers whose tags don’t fit the new rule may be okay as long as their old tags last. “The purpose of this regulation is not to go out there and pull tags off the road,” said Rick Gardner, a supervisor in the department’s office of tax policy. The aim, he said, is to have clearer rules and be consistent in issuing tags from now on.

Under the new rule, the state will still keep a list of banned plates — about 10,000 are now on that list. But officials now have a new, longer and more specific set of reasons for putting words on the list.

And the state will police itself better. It must now review the list at least once a year. If the banned words don’t fall within one of the specific criteria, they’ll come off the blacklist and become available for picking.

Georgia has struggled over the years to regulate more than 100,000 requests for vanity license plates.

It’s hard enough just to read the things. When is “8” part of the word “hate?” The possibilities in the age of texting have state employees running tag requests through the online Urban Dictionary.

Compounding the challenge, the old rule left considerable room for interpretation. For instance, it banned tags “referring to a crime or criminal activity” or with “language, a message or material that might reasonably invoke violence upon persons or property.”

So someone at the department banned GUN. But someone approved GUNZZ.

Both would seem to be out under the new rule, which prohibits “any reference to weapons, drugs or alcohol.”

An activist for gun rights said he didn’t like it, but there were worse outrages.

“Basically, I’ll just say it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t want guns on license plates,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry. “They don’t want them in several other places in the state of Georgia.”

The courts have struggled with the license plate issue too. Are license plates personal speech, or a state-manufactured billboard on your car? Or some combination?

Take, for instance, plates with state-stamped slogans. In 2006 the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Tennessee to offer drivers a license plate with the specialty stamp “Choose Life,” although Tennessee refused to issue a pro-choice plate.

But when South Carolina tried to do the same thing, the Fourth Circuit said that would violate the First Amendment. The Supreme Court declined to step in and sort out the issue.

As for vanity plates, in 2009 the ACLU took up the cause of a Colorado vegetarian who was denied the plate ILVTOFU. Colorado officials were concerned the phrase referred to an activity rather than a food.

The woman chose to back down so the case was never resolved in court, said Mark Silverstein, the Colorado ACLU’s legal director.

During the controversy, the ACLU also offered to go to bat for a state senator who threatened to apply for the plate ACLUSUX.

“Absolutely,” Silverstein said this week. “We don’t agree with the ACLUSUX license plate but we would defend anyone’s right to display it on their car.”

That might not fly in Georgia, though: The new rule explicitly bans the word “suck.”

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