Hallowed 'Ween': DMV plucks precious plates
When Tom Rose ordered his WEEN ME vanity plates from the DMV back in 2002, he wasn't announcing an unnatural attachment to his mama– he was touting his devotion to the post-modern pop rock group Ween, which he calls the "greatest band of all time."
But after three years with the plates proudly displayed on his black 1983 Mercedes, suddenly, he says, DMV had a change of heart. On September 16, Rose received a letter from the DMV informing him that a "culturally diverse" committee had determined his plates had a "sexual connotation." By October 6, the letter stated, 39-year-old Rose would need to wean himself of WEEN ME and latch on to a new pair.
"I was incensed," says Rose, pointing out that "ween" is an Old English word meaning "to be of the opinion," and has no relation to "wean," a term associated with the cessation of nursing in mammals.
"The decision that my plate is sexually explicit is erroneous," says Rose, who adds that he's been an avid listener of Ween's music for years and personally knows the band's members.
What started as a fan's paean quickly morphed into a free speech issue that pits the Department of Motor Vehicles against defenders of the First Amendment.
"You just simply cannot outlaw particular use of words," says Josh Wheeler, an executive with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
"States are in no way required to allow their citizens to have personalized vanity plates," says Wheeler. "However, if states choose to do so, then they are creating a forum for public expression and therefore any restrictions on the content of such plates cannot violate the First Amendment."
DMV, however, denies that license plates are a "public forum" protected by the First Amendment. "Because license plates are owned and issued by the Commonwealth and not a public forum," states the letter to Rose, "DMV has a duty and responsibility to ensure its license plates meet that criteria."
Whether license plates are a public forum or the property of the DMV may be hammered out in front of a judge, and the Center's board will decide next month whether to fund a lawsuit on Rose's behalf.
The DMV prohibits messages that may "reasonably be seen by a person as profane, obscene, or vulgar in nature," says spokesperson Marcia Meredith. In addition, she adds, no message may be "excretory related," refer to intimate body parts or genitals, or to drugs, drug culture, or drug use. No message may encourage violence or other illegal activities, nor may a message contain anything socially, racially, or ethnically offensive.
Back in 1981 when it introduced vanity plates, the DMV famously charged a group of employees with compiling a list of every possible obscenity they could think of so they could be banned. But it's no secret that many naughty plates are out there.
"Many customers are extremely creative and will try to slip something by us," says Meredith, who cites the use of insulting words in foreign languages as a common problem.
That's not the only trouble spot.
Rose recalls seeing a Redskin fan with the plate "4Skins." And the advent of custom backgrounds over the last decade has provided a whole new range of opportunities– particularly for one UVA plate subscriber whose message noted and photographed by a Hook reporter two years ago– read simply "AGINA." Nothing sexy there, except that it followed that plate's built-in University of Virginia "V" logo.
Meredith says Rose has the opportunity to appeal the committee's decision. If the DMV license plate committee, assistant commissioner, and commissioner all agree with his appeal, he'll have his WEEN ME plates returned.
Rose says he does plan to appeal, but he has little faith that the decision will be reversed. "I think I'm going to get shut down," he says, "so I'm going to make as much noise as I can about this as a free speech issue."
Wheeler says he's excited by the possibility of taking this case. Vanity plates have been on his radar for some time– the Thomas Jefferson Center has given two "Muzzle Awards" over license plate issues– one in 1998 to Maryland's Motor Vehicles Administration for recalling 78 previously approved Confederate Flag plates, and the second in 2004 to the Arizona State License Commission for banning a "Choose Life" license plate.
With WEEN ME, Wheeler says, he may have an opportunity to help set First Amendment precedent.
While he admits he hasn't completed all the preliminary research for such a case– and the Thomas Jefferson Center board must give its approval– he thinks Rose has a fighting chance to win back WEEN ME.
"I find it difficult to think of any traditional First Amendment analysis that would allow for the exclusion of this particular license plate," he says.
Tom Rose, proud owner of WEEN ME plates, doesn't claim to be a giant baby; he simply loves a band.
PHOTO BY GEORGE KAMIDE
Note to DMV: commemorative logo + vanity words = hi-jinks.
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER