“DEPORTM,” read the license plate, emblazoned in a black frame featuring the Gadsden flag’s mottos of “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Liberty or Death.”
Pacenza tweeted a photo of the vanity plate on Thursday, asking Utah agencies to clarify how “DEPORTM” was allowed to make it onto the road.
“How does this plate I just saw not violate your guidelines?” he asked in a tweet.
Now, the online backlash from “DEPORTM,” a message described by some as “horrific” and “hateful,” has resulted in the state debating this week whether to recall the vanity plate for carrying “connotations offensive to good taste and decency or that may be misleading” or expressing “contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage or political affiliation.”
Tammy Kikuchi, a spokeswoman for the Utah State Tax Commission, the agency overseeing the approval of vanity license plates, told local media outlets that it was unclear how, in a state where more than 1,000 vanity plates were rejected in the last five years, “DEPORTM” was approved in 2015.
“We’re not sure how it got through,” Kikuchi told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We’re really quite surprised.”
The news surrounding the license plate, first reported by the Tribune, is the latest to challenge the question of whether vanity license plates are considered free speech or should be subject to government scrutiny.
When Pacenza first saw the vanity plate last week, he said it “felt significantly different” compared to some of the other more playful personalized plates he had see around the city.
“It jumped out at me because of how aggressive and confrontational and political the message was,” Pacenza said to the Tribune.
The plate’s existence is perhaps more surprising given the state’s strict oversight on denying plates that are “vulgar, derogatory, profane or obscene,” according to the Utah Department of Motor Vehicles. Some examples of rejected vanity plates in Utah cited by local media have made references to a range of sensitive or malicious subjects, such as violent crimes, genitalia and hate groups.
Soon after Pacenza posted the photo, he got the attention of state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who called for clarity on a process that allowed “DEPORTM” on the road.
“A private citizen has a first amendment right to say offensive things. The State does not, and has rules about license plates,” tweeted state Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher (R). “I believe those rules have been violated here. Hopefully Tax Commission agrees.”
Then, his Democratic colleague in the Utah Senate, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, announced that lawmakers would discuss on Wednesday what it takes to deny personalized plates and how the law is being interpreted.
Currently, if a license plate is recalled in Utah, the driver must respond within 15 days of being notified and select a different vanity plate, according to KSL. The owner of the plate can also file an appeal.
States have debated whether vanity license plates are protected under the First Amendment in recent years — and the results have been mixed. As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh recently noted, Maryland and Kentucky ruled in 2016 and 2019, respectively, that vanity plates are protected as free speech. Those rulings came after Indiana’s Supreme Court went the other way in 2015, saying that “license plates have long been used for government purposes.”
As for Pacenza, the teacher who first tweeted about the plate in question, he is proud that lawmakers are stepping up, maintaining that “DEPORTM” should not be allowed.
“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,” he told KSL. “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.”