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The License to Say It, Even IF I BUG U

As a habitual reader of vanity license plates, I sometimes wonder at those that have been allowed, and wonder which ones might have been rejected.

Some insight into the selective process comes from Zoila Conan Rickard, who sends me an answer she received from the Department of Motor Vehicles to her complaint about a plate that she considered obscene, or at least offensive.

Evidently Mrs. Rickard had written to protest a plate that read MOONEM. Actually, moonem can hardly be thought obscene, though certainly it describes a vulgar practice.

Moonem is rather new in the lexicon. I do not find it either in the “Dictionary of American Slang” (1975) by Wentworth and Flexner, or in the more recent “Thesaurus of Slang” by Levin and Levin.

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Therefore I must rely on my own familiarity with the vernacular to say that moon means to expose one’s naked posterior to strangers, usually through the rear window of a moving automobile, or from a bus. Anyone who is not afraid to watch R-rated movies has probably been exposed to this phenomenon. I actually saw it once on the freeway.

Considering all the obscenities that we are subjected to these days, this does not seem to me a particularly outrageous form of expression. After all, it is harmless; it is not exploitative; it is not threatening; and, at best, it is amusing.

Mrs. Rickard’s complaint was answered by Judi Fabretti, manager of Special Plate Unit 47. The size of the job is suggested by the fact that it takes at least 47 units to handle vanity plates. (By the way, the state does not call them vanity plates, but environmental plates, since the money paid for them goes to environmental causes.)

In what I consider a remarkably straightforward letter, and remarkably free of official gobbledygook, Fabretti points out that in processing 1 million plates, the department occasionally has approved one that might be considered offensive.

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When complaints are made, she said, the department may cancel the plates, but the holder is entitled to a hearing, which may be long and expensive. So far, she said, the department has attempted to cancel only 50 plates.

“The hearing officers rescinded the order of cancellation against plates which we believed were even more explicitly offensive than MOONEM ,” she said.

Furthermore, she added, MOONEM had been assigned to its current owner since 1984, and there had been no other complaint.

“I must admit,” she said, “that it is sometimes difficult for us to balance the constitutional right of free speech and expression, while at the same time not offending the sensibilities of other segments of our population. My decision in this instance is that we will not attempt to recall this particular license.”

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In sending Fabretti’s letter to me, Mrs. Rickard says, “I want you to see I’m getting nowhere in my one-person campaign to recall an offensive license plate!”

Much as I hate to go against a reader who has turned to me for help, I must say that I admire Fabretti for her enlightened attitude, and for her lucid prose. If she happens to be a lawyer, I would recommend her for the Supreme Court.

Certainly environmental license plates have helped relieve the monotony of freeway driving. As Jere Stuart French philosophized recently, one tends to forgive a young woman who squeezes you out of a parking place with a Volkswagen whose plates read DO I BUG U.

I sympathize with Mrs. Rickard for her feeling of helplessness against what she evidently perceives as the lowering of moral standards on all fronts. I agree that since the freeways belong to all of us, we ought to be protected on them from any wanton display of obscenity.

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But if the Department of Motor Vehicles is to act as censor in the issuance of vanity plates, as it must, then I am glad that it tends to accept the general public reaction in questionable cases, rather than bowing to every individual complaint.

It is obvious that certain words are taboo. None of us cares to read them on the freeway. But the department must use its power with discretion. If it doesn’t allow words and phrases that flirt with indiscretion, the fun of looking for them will be gone.

The plates I want would say FIAT LUX--Let There Be Light. Is that OK?


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