The Maine Secretary of State’s Office received warnings about the possibility of ugly consequences when it got legislative approval three years ago to drop its long-standing policy of screening vanity license plates for vulgar language.

For C. Callahan of Bath, evidence of that prediction coming true appeared on a red Ford Focus that she saw parked just south of the main gate Thursday at Bath Iron Works. The car bore a license plate combining a four-letter expletive with “US,” spelling a word that could be construed as a statement about the nation or a play on the car’s name used by some Focus owners.

The woman, who asked to be identified only by her first initial and last name because of concerns about a reprisal, saw it on the way to her job at the shipyard.

A license plate spotted outside Bath Iron Works this week hangs on a Ford Focus. A shipyard worker said it made her stop “dead in my tracks.” Digitally redacted submitted photo

“I stopped dead in my tracks and thought, ‘Is that a real license plate?’ ” she said.

It is, and it’s a sign of the times.

The state stopped screening vanity license plate requests in 2015 and now will recall plates only if they are likely to incite violence, such as with a racial slur, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Thursday.

The owner of the plate in Bath could not be immediately identified, and Dunlap said he’s barred by federal law from providing the name of the car’s owner. That means the underlying message is unclear, including whether the car’s owner is referring to the “United States” or “us.” Some Focus owners also participate in online groups under the same title, so there’s a possibility that the intent is more benign than a passer-by might think.

However, the hatchback’s rear window, just above the license plate, bore a large decal showing an image of an assault rifle with the words “Assault Life.”

For Callahan, regardless of the intent, the plate is upsetting.

“This could totally incite violence and fear, and it’s terrorizing,” she said. Along with the decals, she said, the plate sends “a bad message.”

COURT SCRUTINY ON SCREENING SPEECH

Dunlap said his office used to screen vanity plate requests, and staffers were armed with dictionaries, thesauruses and other reference books to search out hidden meanings. But that started to end after the state issued breast cancer awareness plates and residents requested vanity plates to go with them.

BQQBS and SVTATAS were early requests that Dunlap’s office had rejected. But Meredith Strang Burgess, who as a state lawmaker had championed adoption of the new plates, intervened and urged Dunlap to approve the plates, telling him that among those who have breast cancer and those who want to see more research into the disease, the words are used as a light-hearted statement of support.

Dunlap agreed and allowed the breast cancer awareness plates to go out.

But “boobs, tatas and (expletive) are different,” Burgess said Thursday. “We are talking about breasts and some people go cutesy, but those words have become part of the lexicon of society.”

Burgess was distressed to learn that her intervention may have helped to open the floodgates to offensive license plates.

She said the plates now seen on cars go too far.

“For Matt to say, ‘Everything goes now,’ I don’t understand that,” she said. If the Federal Communications Commission can impose fines when certain words are uttered on the public airwaves, she said, Maine’s secretary of state should be able to clamp down on license plates.

But Dunlap said courts in other states have struck down laws restricting the language on license plates on free-speech grounds and he didn’t think Maine’s screening process would survive court scrutiny. New Hampshire’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that regulations barring a man from getting a “COPSLIE” plate violated his free-speech rights, while Indiana and Maryland two years later upheld restrictions on plate language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that license plates are “government speech” and can be regulated more than private speech. But that case was focused more on political grounds because it involved the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans seeking a specialty license plate that would carry an image of the Confederate battle flag.

Constitutional scholar Marybeth Herald, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California, said in a recent article that judging offensiveness in a diverse society is difficult, and the state should stay out of it.

“Offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder and is an almost limitless concept,” she wrote. “The First Amendment is an insurance policy against government repression.”

‘POOR TASTE IS NOT A VIOLATION’

Dunlap thinks Maine courts would side with the New Hampshire interpretation and find that there’s no overriding state interest in regulating license plate “speech.” He said in Maine, it’s largely anything goes, as long as the license plate doesn’t create some threat to public safety.

If someone sees a plate they think steps over that line, they can appeal to Dunlap, but he said Thursday that it’s not his job to protect people from their own choices.

“If someone is dumb enough to put (expletive) on their license plates, they live with the consequences,” he said. “If you’re going to meet a date, or meet someone’s parents for the first time and you have that on your plate, where’s that going to get you? But where is the state’s compelling interest (in preventing that)?”

Dunlap said he will review any requests to recall a plate if someone objects to one and brings it to his attention, which Callahan said she would do. But he said a recall is unlikely unless the plate carries a racial slur or Nazi slogan, for example.

“Having poor taste is not a violation of Maine law,” he said.

Dunlap’s office could not provide a list of the state’s current vanity plates, so it’s not clear how pervasive the use of what some may see as offensive language has become under the new policy.

But obscene license plates, as well as particularly assertive bumper stickers, lead to a coarsening of social norms, making people more likely to talk at each other instead of with each other, said Pamela Plumb, a former Portland city councilor who is now a co-chair of Maine Revives Civility. The group is devoted to getting people to talk to each other and focus on finding common ground for conversation to restore civility to public life.

Plumb said that for her, the issue of what’s on a license plate isn’t a matter of free speech.

“There’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s helpful,” Plumb said. “That kind of comment just makes it harder to have a civil conversation.”

She encouraged others to look beyond the offensive license plates and reach out to those behind the wheel.

“Say, ‘What’s up? What’s behind that?’ ” she said, although she admitted that the owner of the red Focus isn’t sending out a message that he or she is up for a calm conversation.

“They’re saying ‘Get away,’ ” Plumb said. “It has a shock factor to it and generally conveys anger, but it’s fundamental to democracy to share our points of view and talk them through in a civil manner.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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