SEATTLE — When Tony Cava got a letter from Washington state about somebody complaining that his personalized license plate came across as “vulgar, profane or offensive to good taste and decency," he was, well, “pretty befuddled."
The plate on his white 1989 BMW says, “GOES211."
He thought, what’s so vulgar about that?
Cava, 53, is a fan of “This is Spinal Tap," the 1984 mockumentary about a fictional heavy metal group. The license plate is a homage to the classic scene in which band member Nigel explains that while other amps go to 10 on the volume control, theirs goes to 11, “if we need that extra push over the cliff."
A man identifying himself as Johnny Dixon wasn’t thinking “Spinal Tap" when he spotted the plate.
Last October, Dixon emailed the Department of Licensing: “I find it in poor taste that the great state of Washington would issue a plate that allows a driver to insinuate in public that his penis grows to 11 inches in length. The rest of the citizens of Washington should not be subjected to this vulgarity."
And so the case of GOES211 ended up before something called the DOL’s Personalized License Plate Committee. Bureaucracies like committees, and lists.
State law gives the agency authority to determine what is and isn’t offensive in a personalized plate. But even if the DOL approves a plate, anyone who spots a plate on the road and takes offense can make a complaint. Then, the agency investigates.
There are plenty of terms that can offend.
The agency has compiled a list of 654 “do not issue" terms for vanity plates since the state began issuing them in 1975. Using everything from Google searches that include foreign-language and slang dictionaries to asking translators to explain what something means in Russian, the committee decides what crosses the offensive line.
The committee, made up of six people ranging from a State Patrol representative to a DOL administrator, is the last resort of appeal for questionable plates, and it’s where complaints from the public about a specific plate usually end up.
In the case of GOES211, the committee let Cava keep his plate.
“The complaint was, pardon my pun, a stretch," says Brad Benfield, a DOL spokesman who’s served 10 years on the committee.
Asked to comment about his complaint, Dixon emailed back, “What exactly is it that you want to know? I find it disturbing that you can access my emails to the DOL."
Public records for the story were first acquired by the nonprofit.
The committee handles about 12 cases a year, which is obviously a minuscule fraction of the 84,000 vanity plates out there.
Then there was the case of Fred Talbot, a Sammamish account manager who likes to hunt.
In 2010, he was denied the license plate “ELKNUT" for his Dodge Ram pickup.
He remembers the DOL calling him: “The lady said people might think you’re referring to an elk’s testicles," Talbot recalls. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! This is silly!’ "
Talbot wrote the committee: “This is a very well-known name in elk hunting circles as it is the name of an Internet company called Elknut Productions which sells products to help elk hunters. I did not ask for ‘ELKNUTS’ or ‘ELKSNUT,’ even I would agree that might be taken the wrong way."
The agency then found that it had issued 60 personalized plates with “NUT" as the last three characters — DUKNUT, PIGNUT, HOGNUT.
So the committee allowed Talbot his personalized plate that had cost him $69.75. He now diplomatically says about it all, “I thought they were a little too conservative."
But it is in the documents from the committee that you see the emotions involved.
In the case of “JUGALET," for four years it had adorned a 2003 Chevy Cavalier driven by Lisa Kleiner, 42.
She works at a Puyallup hospital as a representative for cancer patients.
She’s also a big fan of Insane Clown Posse, the Detroit hip-hop duo whose fervent fans are known as Juggalos.
Kleiner says she has appreciated how the duo, whose lyrics are often violent but combined with spirituality, reaches out to those who’ve had troubled lives.
Officer Mike Lusk of the Puyallup Police Department thought otherwise.
On February 2010, he emailed the DOL about not only JUGALET, but another plate, JUGGALO:
“Regardless of the plate holder’s activation in the gang the plate still refers to a known recognized gang in WA. It would be no different if DOL issued a plate titled Blood or Crips."
Kleiner wrote the committee, “I am a law-abiding citizen and I have devoted the last 15 years of my life to helping others. I was shocked and offended that someone would make a complaint."
But, unanimously, the committee pulled both plates.
Says Kleiner, “What happened to freedom of speech?"
Finally, we come to the case of “THE BOP."
Roger Baker, 68, used to be police chief in Des Moines.
He and his wife, Shirley Baker, 60, now run Business of Policing (BOP), a consulting firm.
So they were quite surprised when in September 2010, the state rejected their application to have “THE BOP" as their vanity plate.
It turned out the agency’s staff had gone to Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary. It takes work, trying to figure out hidden meanings.
They found “BOP" could mean everything from “early modern jazz" to “Sexually suggestive."
Says Shirley Baker, “Our circle of friends, even cops, were clueless about any kind of negative connotation."
Roger Baker wrote the committee, “My wife and I are members of the ‘senior community’ and the plates, ‘THE BOP,’ on our Ford Explorer should certainly allay any question of sinister meaning to anyone."
The committee allowed the plate.