A Vehicle for Self-Expression? Not on These Roads.

David Phillips was told to return his license plate, which reads
David Phillips was told to return his license plate, which reads "POOFTER," after the special plates office deemed it "socially, racially or ethnically offensive or disparaging." (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, November 4, 2007

For 11 years, over nearly 200,000 miles, with the blessing of the state of Virginia, David Phillips has driven his Tracker with the "POOFTER" license plate, and nobody has complained -- not even when he parked at the British Embassy, where everybody knows "poofter" is British slang for a gay man.

"It's always a rolling good laugh for them," says Phillips, who is gay and chose his tags' message because "it's just an amusing word that I self-identify with."

The commonwealth of Virginia is not amused. It gave Phillips his vanity plates in error, Carolyn Easley, coordinator of the special license plates office, wrote in a recent letter. "You may have grown fond of your personalized plates," but they are "socially, racially or ethnically offensive or disparaging" and "you must return them." There was no explanation for why it took Virginia 11 years to figure out what "poofter" means.

They'll have to pry those plates from Phillips's cold dead hands, or something like that. The 42-year-old Arlington County resident, who works as a computer consultant, says he's not sending back the tags, even if the state has generously provided a prepaid envelope for that purpose.

The next step: a hearing in Richmond. But Phillips's chances are not good, because his case has been to the Word Committee, a panel of a dozen Department of Motor Vehicles employees who review vanity plate applications that have either drawn a citizen complaint or been flagged by a computer program that searches proposed plate messages -- forward and backward -- for obscene, explicit, excretory, violent or offensive content.

In Phillips's case, it must have been a citizen complaint that triggered the review because the state doesn't just randomly go back and reconsider plates that have been on the road for years. "We definitely rely on residents to report any inappropriate message," says DMV spokesman Melanie Stokes, who, citing privacy rules, won't comment on how Phillips's tags came in for reinspection.

If you, like Phillips, are amazed that the state would bother to spend tax dollars chasing after vanity plates, you'll want to grab the blood pressure meds before reading this: Hundreds of battles over personalized plates have used up untold government resources in a strange corner of the law that has some of the nation's top courts issuing contradictory rulings.

Ever since 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New Hampshire could not stop residents from covering up the state's "Live Free or Die" motto on license plates, courts have struggled over who gets to decide what words may go on tags. States have denied drivers messages such as "GVT SUX," "WINE," "PUSHER," "QUICKEE" and even "ATHEIST."

But courts have pushed back: One federal appeals court ordered Missouri to approve "ARYAN-1," saying the state "may not censor a license plate because its message might make people angry." In Vermont, however, a federal appeals court said the state could ban scatological terms because that doesn't involve quashing any viewpoint.

In Virginia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit prohibited the state from banning a Confederate flag logo on a special license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans because that would be viewpoint discrimination.

The state did strip Alice Deighan and her partner, Scout, of their "2DYKES" plates a decade ago; the then-Alexandria residents' appeal was denied.

The lesbian couple's argument was the same as Phillips's. "This is how we identify," says Deighan, a social worker who now lives in Rhode Island. "We obviously weren't calling random motorists 'dykes.' This is what we call ourselves. There are a lot of things in the world that are offensive, but this wasn't one of them. If the word offends you on the road, don't look at it. But the word police wouldn't consider our argument."

Like many Virginians -- the state is No. 3 in the portion of drivers (12 percent) who personalize their plates -- Phillips uses his car to send messages. For a while, he had a sticker that altered the state's 400th anniversary Jamestown plates to say "400 Years of Oppression and Bigotry."

But his vanity plates were always more about having a chuckle over his personal identity than about making any political point. "People have to be into British humor or have some contact with that culture to have any idea what it means," Phillips says. He first heard the word in adolescence while watching Boy George appear on the old Phil Donahue talk show. "Some old British woman gets up and asks, 'So, Boy, when did you realize you were a poofter?' "

Then and now, Phillips found the name funny but hardly offensive. Merriam-Webster says "poofter" is "usually disparaging," and the Oxford English Dictionary calls the word "derogatory slang," but it's routinely aired on broadcast television, and Phillips says it's less disparaging than "nancy boy," which happens to have been his previous license tag message ("NANCBOY," for four years, with no complaint from the state). "Poofter," Phillips contends, "is a pretty neutral word. It gets past any e-mail filter."

Phillips will fight on to Richmond, but, as a realistic fellow, he's also looking ahead: "I wonder what they would do with a word like 'queer.' "

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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