SALT LAKE CITY — It was Thursday afternoon and high school English teacher Matt Pacenza was driving home when he saw a license plate reading “DEPORTM” near Trolley Square.
Troubled, he snapped a photo of the personalized plate and posted it to Twitter. Likes and comments started flooding in, some expressing distress — others outrage — over the inscription.
The social media thread attracted the attention of several state senators as well as the Utah State Tax Commission, which oversees license plate approval. The commission announced Friday afternoon it is reviewing whether the plate violates department guidelines.
The Department of Motor Vehicles receives around 450 personalized license plate requests each month, according to the tax commission. Tammy Kikuchi, public information officer with the agency, confirmed the “DEPORTM” plate was approved in 2015.
The teacher from Salt Lake City wonders why.
“I think there’s a wide range of opinions in Utah when it comes to an issue like immigration and that’s a good thing,” Pacenza said. “I think it’s good to live in a place where we can express ourselves freely and have a diverse set of attitudes about complex issues, but it doesn’t feel like to me license plates are the right venue for that. And this particular issue just seemed unusually aggressive and confrontational.”
Pacenza tagged the Utah Driver License Division in the Tweet, but later amended it and clarified that it is the Utah State Tax Commission that oversees personalized plate approval.
Like other states, Utah has stringent guidelines outlining what can and cannot appear on a personalized license plate. Standards listed on the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles website are based off 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.’”
Specifically, the website says plate combinations that reference drugs; are sexual, vulgar, or derogatory in nature; suggest ideas dangerous to public welfare; or disrespect “race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, or political affiliation,” are not accepted.
Kikuchi said in the press release plates that violate these standards may be denied or recalled. If a plate is recalled, the holder will be notified and must respond within 15 days by selecting a different personalization. The holder can also file an appeal if they disagree with the decision.
Commenters, Pacenza included, feel the plate violates the guidelines.
Kikuchi provided KSL with a list citing 1,280 license plates as rejected within the past five years. They included phrases like HAILN0, D0LPHNS, VDKA, VINO, LEWD^ and DM0CIDE.
The Twitter thread attracted the attention of several Utah senators.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, responded to the thread and said he would reach out to the Utah Driver License Division for further information.
Later, he told KSL he sent a message to the Utah State Tax Commission chair prompting it to look into the matter. He pointed out that an individual is free to say what they wish under the First Amendment, but clarified that the state has rules regarding what can and cannot be put on a state-issued ID.
“I believe that it violates the rules,” Thatcher said.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the issue will be discussed in an upcoming Administrative Rules Review committee meeting next Wednesday at the Capitol.
She said the committee will look at the decision-making process in granting or denying personalized license plate requests with the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles and will listen to proposed rule changes.