When you read this is happening in Utah, perhaps you’ll be less surprised about it, but it’s my feeling that these sorts of attempts at censorship should be fought wherever they happen. Because however innocuous they appear, they always seem to lead to more serious attempts at curbing peoples’ rights of self-expression. Nip ’em in the bud, I say. It seems the State of Utah will not allow a man to keep his vanity license plate that reads “MERLOT” because, according to a UPI story, it violates the state’s ban on vanity plates linked with intoxicants. A similar AP story on CBS News makes a similar claim.
But if you visit the Utah DMV website, this is all that they say on the subject:
Guidelines and Standards
What are the rules or guidelines regarding the combination and numbers of characters on a plate, or the content of the message on the plate?
In general, the statute forbids any combination of letters or numbers that “may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency or that would be misleading.” In general, this law prohibits combinations that:
- Are vulgar, derogatory, profane or obscene;
- Make reference to drugs or drug paraphernalia;
- Make reference to sexual acts, genitalia or bodily functions, or
- Express contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage,
gender or political affiliation.
- Express or suggest endangerment to the public welfare.
Now, raise your hand. Who thinks the word merlot is “vulgar, derogatory, profane or obscene?” And it clearly doesn’t fit the third and fourth guidelines, either. So okay, let’s look at the second, that it makes “reference to drugs or drug paraphernalia.” Now I realize that alcohol is technically a drug, but I think it has one unique feature that makes it very different from what I assume the intent of that language was, which is that it’s legal.
Now I know there are some fine beers brewed in Utah, but by and large a healthy percentage of the state’s citizens have chosen to voluntarily abstain for religious reasons. That’s a lifestyle decision. I don’t happen to agree with it personally, but I respect it as a personal decision … except when you try to force that opinion on the rest of us. In this particular instance, the “MERLOT” plate has been on a 1996 merlot-red Mercedes for ten years. The owner was told he must remove it simply because one pinhead “anonymous caller told the state that merlot was also an alcoholic beverage.” It’s hard not to find it a little funny that they had to be told that. But it’s not at all funny that there is at least one person out there who had such a problem with a single word he saw on the back of a car. And not only that, but he felt compelled to do something about it. I can’t even imagine the thought process that led him to rat out a fellow human being for the word merlot. How on earth was this person damaged by the sight of it? How could seeing this one word be offensive? I just don’t get it. Did seeing the word tempt him so much that he was in danger of abandoning his commitment to abstinence? If so, it doesn’t seem too strong a commitment. Was he afraid of his children seeing it? If so, he’s not a very good parent if all it might take to corrupt his kids might be seeing the word “merlot.” Did his religious beliefs blind him to the fact that there are other equally legitimate ways in order to live one’s life? Maybe it’s the progressive in me, but I can’t for the life of me come up with a scenario in which this is in any way reasonable.
Believe it or not, there’s a website where a Salt Lake City man has collected vanity plates he’s seen driving around the Beehive state. Apparently the Utah DMV is also unaware that “CHIVAS” and “WHISKEY” are alcoholic, though they have thoughtfully put up a web page of links to other vanity plate websites.
Perhaps the real joke is that the man who owns the car chose the word “merlot” because that was the color of his automobile, not even because it’s also a varietal wine grape. Apparently, he’s go to fight the state on this one, and I, for one, am glad.