All Kelley Coffman-Lee wanted to do was broadcast her love of tofu to the driving public.
So the Colorado vegan applied to the state's Department of Revenue for a vanity license plate for her Suzuki SL7 carrying the message: ILVTOFU.
Clerks at her local motor vehicle office approved the plate -- but it did not escape the discerning eyes of state revenue officials, who detected another way that Coffman-Lee's penchant for tofu could be read.
"It could be misinterpreted in a way that suggests that she likes something other than tofu," explained revenue department spokesman Mark Couch.
Not only that, but Coffman-Lee's pithy ode to soy went straight onto the department's list of letter combinations banned under a state law that permits authorities to weed out those applications deemed "offensive to good taste or decency."
Others that haven't passed muster: OBITEME, 2EROTIC and PASSGAS.
The list has grown to 2,744 entries over the years as residents apply for creative letter combinations to express their personal preferences. "Ever since we've had vanity plates, there's been someone trying to slip one by us," Couch said.
Coffman-Lee, who could not be reached for comment, has said that ILVTOFU does not deserve to be listed. "My whole family is vegan, so tofu is like a staple for us. I was just going to have a cool license plate, and the DMV misinterpreted my message," Coffman-Lee told the Denver Post after the application was denied.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado has entered the fray, questioning what it calls censorship by the state.
The ACLU has obtained the list of banned phrases. The list reveals "the more serious ways in which this attempt to purge offensive words has wound up being an effort to censor ideas and viewpoints," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the Colorado ACLU. He noted that the list includes: BADUSA, 4HEMP and OK2BGAY.
Silverstein noted the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in a 1971 case that a profane message on a California man's jacket had free speech protections.
The courts are divided in their rulings on states' rights to restrict license plate messages, said Gene Policinski, executive director of the Tennessee-based First Amendment Center.
Some have ruled that governments can regulate such messages as long as the restrictions aren't based on viewpoints. Others have held that motorists have the right to express what they wish with little restriction.
The next step in Colorado? STYTUND
Correll writes for The Times.