Aug 21, 2023 - Transit

Scoop: New Massachusetts law shields rejected vanity plate records

Illustration of a Massachusetts vanity license plate with symbols implying a swear word.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Every year Massachusetts drivers apply for customized "vanity" plates featuring words like "PISSA," "BONG" and "SLOWAF," only to be rejected by the state.

  • But we may never again learn what ridiculous plates people failed to get past the Registry of Motor Vehicles due to a new state law.

What's happening: When Axios requested the 2022 database of rejected plates, a MassDOT spokesperson replied that the information is no longer publicly available.

  • The driver's license law that took effect July 1 shields plate requests from public view, per the spokesperson.
  • She cited the statute and recent regulations, but could not immediately respond to questions about what language specifically exempts the data from public release.

The intrigue: The law was designed to shield information about driver's license applicants from federal immigration authorities, lawmakers said last year. But they made no public mention of rejected vanity plate requests.

  • Indeed, "the intention of the law was not to address the vanity plate issue in any way," state Rep. Christine Barber, a Somerville Democrat who initially introduced the bill in the House, told Axios.

What they're saying: "Laws are occasionally passed with the best of intentions that, unfortunately when they play out, increase secrecy in the state," Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told Axios.

  • "This is non-controversial information. No one was complaining that requests for vanity plates were being made public," he added.

But, but, but: Gannett publications, including the Cape Cod Times, obtained the 2022 database before the new law took effect and recently published it.

Zoom in: The Registry of Motor Vehicles received nearly 16,000 requests for customized "vanity" license plates last year, approving all but 897, according to the Times.

  • Those rejected were deemed too vulgar, hostile, inappropriate or unsuitable because the RMV didn't understand the meaning, per the database.

Go deeper: FOMO, CUGAR and LATINA: The vanity plates the RMV rejected in 2022


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