Michigan’s arbitrary process for banning license plates

Government prohibits words for products it advertises

If you drive down I-75, you’ll see dozens of billboards advertising marijuana, alcohol and late-night clubs.

But if you own a brewery and want to celebrate your wares, you can’t get a vanity license plate that says “BEER” or “12PACK” or anything to do with alcohol. The same goes for drugs, including marijuana (the “House of Dank” is advertised on a billboard, but “DANK” on a license plate is out).

The state of Michigan uses 25 volunteers to determine which vanity license plates are verboten. Volunteers and the state have banned 25,000 words or expressions in an exercise that requires making all sorts of moral decisions on the public’s behalf.

The process is arbitrary.

If you paid attention during the last gubernatorial election in Michigan, you probably remember the motto of one candidate (and current governor): “fix the damn roads.” But while that can appear in campaign ads and every media platform, the Secretary of State volunteers don’t allow “damn” on state license plates. No “DAMLADY,” no declaring that you are “DAMFAST” and definitely no “DAMKIDS.”

O.J. Simpson died recently, but if you think you can use a license plate to express your opinion on his criminal case, think again. “OJDIDIT” is banned.

The state itself advertises Michigan’s beer and wine producers in its Pure Michigan campaign. But good luck getting a “H0PS” or “WHISKY” license plate. Even “DR1NK” is a no-go.

Farmers place manure on their vehicles regularly. But they can’t get “MANURE” on their license plates. Go figure.

The state has no problem operating and advertising a gambling racket it calls the Michigan Lottery. But if you want to advertise your love of gambling with “BETTTT,” the cards are stacked against you.

The state says it will reject applications for personalized plates that:

  • Contain profanity or obscene language

  • Depict a swear word

  • Are sexually explicit or graphic

  • Describe intimate body parts or genitals

  • Describe alcohol, alcohol use, drugs, drug culture or drug use

  • Describe illegal activities or illegal substances

  • Interfere with plate identification for law enforcement purposes

  • Promote hate or violence to a business or group

Yes, most of the banned terms are vulgar and fall into one of the categories above. But many are not. Reading the list, I have no clue why some are banned, like “ZZZZZZ,” “XXXL” or “GRRR.”

This is just another example of the arbitrary and bizarre processes of government: banning things that government itself heavily promotes in other areas.

Reading this story, one’s inclined to blame the 25 darn “Karens” who make these decisions. That’s fine. Just don’t put “DAMKRN” on a vanity license plate. It will be rejected.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.