SALT LAKE CITY — In wake of public blowback over a personalized license plate that says DEPORTM, the community will now have more power in determining what is considered offensive and what plates are removed from Utah roads. 

The Utah State Tax Commission, which oversees the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles, declined to confirm whether or not the plate will be repealed and said an investigation is still underway. Scott Smith, Utah State Tax Commission executive director, said a commission statute gives the owner the opportunity to appeal the decision if the plate is rescinded. 

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Community expresses concern over ‘DEPORTM’ license plate, officials reviewing issue

“I don’t want to make it so they don’t have a fair or impartial hearing before the division so there’s some specific things I won’t be able to discuss here,” Smith told lawmakers at an Administrative Rules Review Committee meeting Wednesday morning at the Capitol. 

High school English teacher Matt Pacenza snapped a photo of the plate in question and posted it to Twitter after glimpsing it near Trolley Square on Jan. 9. The post attracted a wave of user attention across social media, many of whom expressed distress or outrage.

But Pacenza wasn’t the first person to complain about the plate.

Smith confirmed the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles received multiple complaints about the plate since it was approved in 2015. However, each time somebody reported concern over the wording, someone in the review process turned it down. 

“If someone in that decision ladder decides that it’s not offensive, then it doesn’t matter how many times a citizen complains, it just hits that point,” Smith said. “That was a weakness in our system.” 

Now, citizen complaints will be entered into a system so everyone in the decision ladder will know how many pertain to a particular license plate, Smith said. If the division receives multiple complaints regarding the same plate, the attorney general’s office will step in for a review.

He noted that the person who was receiving the complaints followed the proper procedures. 

“It was someone up higher in the decision ladder to make the decision and that’s kind of hard because it is subjective criteria — what is offensive to this person may not have been offensive to another person,” Smith said. 

Smith said the change will give the community more say in determining criteria for what is or isn’t offensive. He pointed to a court ruling that the commission has the ability to restrict a plate if the general community would find it offensive. Tracking citizen complaints and ensuring plates with multiple complaints are given additional review helps set that community standard. 

He said one of his regrets over how their policy was set up is that it didn’t allow for enough public involvement, but these changes will “ensure that we have a true community standard if we decide to issue a plate.” 

Like other states, Utah has stringent guidelines outlining what can and cannot appear on a personalized plate. 

Specifically, the Utah State Tax Commission deems proposed plates as offensive when they are vulgar, derogatory, profane, obscene; reference intoxicants or other illicit drugs; express an affiliation or action that could be interpreted as dangerous to the public; and anything that expresses “contempt, ridicule, or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage, political affiliation, or gender,” he said.   

“The definition of what is offensive I think is different for every one of us. I think the definition probably is, ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’” Smith said. “That’s very hard to administer.” 

“The safety net here is the general public,” he said. “If a citizen sees a plate that they think is offensive we have a procedure where they can notify the tax commission and let us know and then we will review it.”

A Utah Division of Motor Vehicles team of 11 reviews personalized plate applications. 

On average, the review team receives 450 applications a month — a task made more difficult given that plates are often spelled backward to fool reviewers or are written in a language other than English, said Monte Roberts, director of the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles.

Utah has denied around 1,280 license plates within the past five years according to a list provided by Tammy Kikuchi, a public information officer for the tax commission.

As director, Roberts ultimately gives final approval on the team’s decision to either approve or deny a plate. He pointed out that if the individual doesn’t agree with the decision they can always appeal it to the tax commission. 

“The consistency part I think is sometimes the hardest, because I’m just like everybody else,” Roberts said. “I have personal interests, personal desires and things that I like to express and whether or not a plate is the proper form for that, I don’t know.”

Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, questioned Roberts and Smith on the degree to which the Utah Legislature’s official positions influence the division’s decisions to approve or deny a plate.

“Did you know we passed a resolution two years ago supporting refugees?” Anderegg asked. There was a moment of drawn out silence and then he continued saying, “The point I’m trying to make is there were official decisions made by this body that I think subjectively need to be brought to bear in your decision-making process.”

Anderegg said the Legislature can help make any changes that need to be made, which is why they thought it was appropriate to have this discussion.

Smith said the commission would welcome any legislative help in crafting additional objective requirements they can use to communicate to staff while reviewing plates.

Rep. Marc K. Roberts, R-Santaquin, said lawmakers may look into potentially crafting something more concrete during the upcoming legislative session.