Is your license plate obscene? At the California DMV, it’s anybody’s guess

Image from LA Magazine.

Thanks to research by Samuel Braslow of Los Angeles Magazine, we now know what kind of California vanity plate requests are rejected for being . . . well, a bit iffy. It’s a great case study in the challenges of content blocking policy; “I know it when I see it” is no way to determine what’s obscene.

According to Breslow’s article, these plates are all unacceptable:

  • 420EDDI
  • 808B8D

Each submission comes with an explanation. GASPASR is a nurse anesthetist. Blue Me is sad. Moby Cat has a big white cat. Schlafr likes to sleep (schlafer is German for sleeper).

Each rejection comes with an explanation, too, which Braslow unearthed. Can you figure out why each of these was rejected? Some, like Fuk Trump, are easy (despite the applicant’s explanation that he plays a funky trumpet). But did you guess that OMW2BYB means “On my way to bang your bitch” (which the applicant cleverly put right in the application)? Or that 808B8D looks like a penis as rendered in text slang? For Moby Cat the rejection said “Moby dick… Moby cat… Vagina?”

Here are a few that the DMV accepted:

  • S8TAN

Because obviously it’s fine to be hot and sexy, very busy, a gay gamer, and a fan of Saint Anne (the respective explanations that the applicants supplied).

Explain the rules and the exceptions

Here’s what the official DMV policy states, according to the article:

Official DMV policy rejects “any personalized license plate configuration that [carries] connotations offensive to good taste and decency.” Broadly, this covers anything with sexual, racial, or profane meaning—even if it’s unintentional. When one customer requested a plate inscribed with his last name, Moorehed, reviewers denied it for its potential profanity. Although the customer’s last name really was Moorehead, they explained, “it looks like ‘more head,’ ” as in “a sexual reference.”

Helpful departmental guidelines also warn reviewers to watch out for words like “pink,” “monkey,” and “muffin”—all euphemisms for vagina—along with their phallic counterparts like “knackers,” “anaconda,” and “nards.” Any configuration with the word “hate” gets tossed as well. Porcine references like “pig,” “swine,” or even “oink” are also verboten because they’re deemed derogatory to police. More controversially, the guidelines instruct evaluators to pass on any plate with the word “Jew” in it—indicative of the word’s function as both an identifier and pejorative. (References to Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists are alright.)

There are exceptions, however. While “box” is generally rejected as a “vagina reference,” the DMV will allow it on a plate if the customer owns “a ‘Box’ type vehicle such as a Scion or a Porsche Boxster.” Similarly, only cars built in 1969 can use the number 69 on their plates.

This is impossibly vague, which explains the arbitrary nature of these decisions. If I lived in California, I could probably not register BULLSHT, but I could probably get away with WOBS, since only I would know it was about something vaguely naughty (unless I told them, of course). “It’s the name of my company, wink, wink.”

Frankly, there’s no way to monitor seven-character combinations for those that might offend. If I were the DMV, I’d err or the side of permissiveness, because most of these “offensive” connotations exist only in the mind of the viewer.

This is emblematic of a broader problem. As soon as a platform tries to define restricted speech, it runs afoul of ambiguity. It took ages for Facebook to kick out the offensive Alex Jones of Infowars, but it just decided that White Separatism is equally offensive to White Supremacy. Its policies change frequently, which drives the content moderators crazy.

(Incidentally, every time I post on my Facebook page it attempts to persuade me to promote my post by paying a bit, but when I try to do that it rejects the post since it has “Bullshit” in the URL. Smart enough to nag for cash, not smart enough to realize it’s futile.)

What’s the solution? There is no solution. If you allow everything, your platform becomes a cesspool of hate (hello, Twitter). If you use machines to block things, their algorithms fail — both by missing offensive things and with false positives. And when you add people’s judgment, you add expense and inconsistency, as at the California DMV.

Here’s the best you can do:

  • Reject as little as possible. The more rules on your blacklist, the more grey areas there will be.
  • Make the rules as clear as possible.
  • Publish the rules. (While this makes it easier to “game the system,” it also make policing more consistent and makes content moderators’ tasks workable.)
  • Create a clear set of reasons for rejections, and respond to rejections with clarity.

These are far from ideal, but they’re better than an arbitrary set of judges with an inconsistent set of policies.

I’ll leave you with this: The California DMV approved this plate. Can you figure out why some people might object to it?

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  1. I have a friend with the license plate “IAMA440”. I said, “Nice — you’re plate says “I am a natural.” She said, “What?”

  2. thank you for another well written and interesting post… it gave me some small consolation for our CA DMV experience: my initials are lk….my wife, whose initials are lck requested the plate: lck (heart symbol) lk as a G-rated expression of love….it was rejected and an appeal letter as to why was not answered….I can imagine why, but too bad….the workaround that succeeded is lnz (heart symbol) lk, uses another version of her first name….modern life!

  3. Funny – what does she thinks it means?

    Either way, “I am a natural” or “I am A natural” is a good one!

  4. Somewhere in the Upanishads it says that the only purpose of the world is to hold up a mirror to ourselves . . .

  5. Good post that highlights the double standard in our definition of free speech. The reality is, we have freedom of speech until someone decides it’s “offensive” or “hate speech” or otherwise inappropriate according to the latest civilized societal norms or other criteria defined those in power at that moment.

  6. Regarding license plates, I once saw one that slipped passed the censors in NJ: QQQQ.

    Regarding WOBS, there’s a lingerie shop that was to be called Wizard of Bras, but the town objected to a sign with the word “bra” in it, so they shortened their name to WOB, but of course their display windows are filled with posters of women modeling lingerie (which I don’t object to) but you have to wonder by what standards the word “bra” was objectionable but the posters aren’t.