If you’re thinking about ordering a customized license plate, forget about creating one that includes curse words or terms for illegal drugs, private body parts or sexual acts.
For that matter, you should try to stay away from terms that denote government organizations, sexual orientation and religion.
Nearly 3,330 words, names, acronyms and initials are banned by the state of South Carolina on customized license plate tags, according to Larry Murray, director of vehicle services for South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles.
Even if a resident pays the extra $30 to drive around with a custom message that makes other drivers groan, giggle or gasp, the approval of that message relies on the discretion of the DMV.
On May 25, hundreds of South Carolina residents will have the opportunity to request a custom message to appear on specialty University of South Carolina or Clemson University license plates, as well as the state’s generic license plate.
The DMV will start by offering the custom tags for the two university plates. More organizations will be able to opt in and create custom tags in the future, Murray said.
The state’s banned list was created nearly 20 years ago and continues to grow.
“As urban lingo changes, we try to keep up with what may be deemed offensive,” Murray said.
Many of the banned terms seem like obvious rejections – “ANTIJEW” and “BIGOT” for example.
Tags with acronyms of government organizations, such as “DNR” and “FBI,” are forbidden because “we don’t want to give perception that a person is in a law enforcement capacity if they’re not,” Murray said.
But other terms on the list cannot be easily explained and raise questions of fairness and equality, including tags that deal with religion, race and sexual identity.
Among the prohibited tags are at least 30 references to sexual orientation, including “LESBIAN,” “GAYGUY” and “HOMO.” Terms such as “STRAIT” and “HETERO” are not on the list, but that doesn’t mean they’d necessarily be approved.
“(Customized license tags) have become a way for people and groups to express themselves and show pride if they went to a certain school or were a part of a specific sorority,” said Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Alliance For Full Acceptance in Charleston. “If someone is proud to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, why shouldn’t they be able to have a license plate that says that?
“I know in the past, the state would prohibit terms because they said (license plates) couldn’t be used for political purposes, but it’s not” Redman-Gress said. “We’re talking about ways that people identify themselves and see themselves. It has nothing to do with politics.”
Religious terms on the banned list are far-reaching, from “CHRIST” and “JESUS” to “HINDU”, “BUDDHA” and “JEW.” Murray said most religious terms are banned because they “could be offensive to somebody else.”
Banned tags from other states were added to South Carolina’s list over time, so no one knows for sure whether a South Carolina resident asked for a word like “NEGRO” and was denied, or if it happened in another state, Murray said.
The DMV’s two-person personalized plate team reviews the banned list, searches the internet and urbandictionary.com and listens to public complaints to pick out the bad apples and latest acronyms for obscenities.
The DMV receives a handful of complaints a year, Murray said.
In one of the most recent cases, Murray said that a caller informed the DMV that a “STFU” tag had slipped through the cracks. In those instances, Murray said the DMV reaches out to the plate owner and gets the plates switched.
The team’s final way to catch questionable tags is the state’s plate contractor —3M. “They will let us know if we processed a plate that had an unintended offensive saying,” Murray said.
Murray said customized plates are rarely rejected because applicants must submit three combinations in order of preference in case any tags are already in use. Generally speaking, Murray said, at least one of the combinations is not on the banned list.
Requirements on the DMV’s website note that “the letter/number combination CANNOT use vulgar or derogatory language.”
But finding what is banned is nearly impossible, because the agency’s site doesn’t list the 3,330 banned tags.
Still, applicants who apply for banned names are simply told that their three choices “are not available,” the same response given if the plate tag was already taken by another motorist.
The DMV sends out those responses about 10 times a week, according to Murray.
In the next few months, the DMV plans to mimic Virginia’s automated application process in which motorists can go online, pick out a plate, and type in a phrase. The site lets applicants know if the tag is available.
Currently the only way to find out if a tag is banned in South Carolina is to call 803-896-5000, Murray said.