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Utah Senate Passes Bill To Curb Offensive License Plates

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The Utah Senate passed a bill that would allow the Division of Motor Vehicles to prohibit license plates that disparage certain groups of people. 

Utah vanity plates—those license plates with personalized messages—have made headlines recently, including one that says “DEPORTM.” Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, is sponsoring Senate Bill 97, which allows the state motor vehicles division to refuse to issue license plates if they belittle groups of people based on different characteristics, such as race, religion, gender identity and citizenship status.

“As you can imagine, people get pretty creative," Escamilla said. "It has caused some controversial stuff that we're dealing at a national level now, because some of them have been pretty derogatory.”

Escamilla says the Utah State Tax Commission, which oversees approval of license plates, requested direction from the legislature on this issue. Currently, personalized license plate guidelines prohibit messages that are “offensive to good taste and decency,” like sexual references or references to drugs. Escamilla says the commission wants more structured standards.

Sen. Wayne Harper, a Republican from Taylorsville, suggested replacing Escamilla’s bill with one that prohibits the issuing of vanity plates altogether. That legislation would allow people to keep vanity plates issued through June 31, 2020 and bar new ones after that date.

“If this is a big issue, we ought to debate it and see if we want to keep them or not, and that's why I'm putting this substitute out there,” Harper said.

Escamilla says she considered that option, but Utah would be the only state that doesn’t allow vanity plates—and it would be a hard sell to many Utahns.

“If you want to get some angry constituents, I encourage you more conversation on this," Escamilla said. "Because people do love their license plates, I must say, and I've noticed in our parking lot this morning a bunch of us in this body have personalized vanity license plates.”

SB 97 passed on a 20-to-seven vote and now goes to the House for consideration.

Emily Means hadn’t intended to be a journalist, but after two years of studying chemistry at the University of Utah, she found her fit in the school’s communication program. Diving headfirst into student media opportunities, Means worked as a host, producer and programming director for K-UTE Radio as well as a news writer and copy editor at The Daily Utah Chronicle.