WEEN win: DMV okays recalled plate

Bureaucrats sure do have dirty minds. That's the lesson Tom Rose learned from his recent go-round with the Department of Motor Vehicles, which pulled his specialty license plates last fall after deeming them indecent. But now, after a fuss, the DMV has finally decided they don't suck.

Back in September, Rose received a certified letter from the DMV informing him that a "culturally diverse" committee in the DMV's specialty plates division had decided that his WEEN ME license plates had a "sexual connotation."

Rose was incensed by the letter's implication that his plate might have something to do with the cessation of nursing, a word that is actually spelled "wean." In fact, Rose said at the time, his license plate was a tribute to what he calls the "greatest band of all time," Ween, who played the Charlottesville Pavilion last month.

Though he objected immediately and requested the DMV to reconsider its ruling on his plate, the agency was initially unwilling, and what started as a fan's tribute quickly morphed into a free speech issue.

On Rose's side: the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Freedom of Expression.

"You just simply cannot outlaw particular use of words," said Josh Wheeler, an executive for the Center.

While Wheeler admitted states don't have to offer vanity plates, he explained that if they do, the free speech protection kicks in. "They are creating a forum for public expression, and therefore any restrictions on the content of such plates cannot violate the First Amendment," he explained.

But the DMV fought back, denying that license plates are protected by the First Amendment.

"Because license plates are owned and issued by the Commonwealth and not a public forum," states the official letter to Rose, "DMV has a duty and responsibility to ensure its license plates meet that criteria."

For several months, Rose battled the bureaucracy, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, calling DMV managers, and writing letters demanding his plates be reinstated. He finally got his wish– and learned, through documents he obtained from FOIA requests– that the DMV has an even dirtier mind than he first thought.

"They actuallly had interpreted it to mean 'Penis in Me,'" says a baffled Rose.

On April 5, Rose finally received an apologetic letter from DMV's top dog, Commissioner D.B. Smit.

"I regret that in your case our service has been less than outstanding," wrote Smit. "We are currently revising the agency's review process for questionable character combinations. The new process will ensure consistent quality reviews and minimize recalls and hearings."

Rose says he remains frustrated that he was deprived of his plates for eight months, and he hopes DMV policy actually will change to spare others from going through the same experience.

The plates were back on his black 1983 Mercedes by early April– just in time for the April 13 Ween show, and Rose says he forgot his frustration for a night.

"I took the plate to the concert, hoisted it and flew it like a flag, hardcore through the show," he says. "This is all about, at its root, me just loving that band."

Tom Rose doesn't have to nurse a grudge, now that his WEEN ME plates are back.


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