After a high school teacher caught a glimpse of a questionable license plate, he raised concerns about the “aggressive and confrontational” message about immigration that the plate promoted. Utah quickly vowed to review the plate, but the man who initially raised the concerns had an interesting response to that news.
Matt Pacenza — whose Twitter profile indicates he’s a high school English teacher as well as an “aspiring crime novelist, sports fan, contrarian, and recovering environmentalist” — spotted a license plate while sitting at a red light that obviously left him perplexed. Confused after seeing the plate’s “aggressive and confrontational” message about immigration, he snapped a photo and took to social media to question how the plate got approved.
“Hey @utahdld, how does this plate I just saw not violate your guidelines? #utpol,” Pacenza wrote alongside an image of the plate in question, which read “DEPORTM.” Also included with Pacenza’s tweet was a link to Utah’s personalization guidelines, as he sought to figure out how the license plate was approved according to the rules. The tweet quickly received over 100 responses from upset commenters, CNN reported.
Pacenza quickly clarified his tweet, saying he “wrongly tagged @utahdld. The correct entity is @UtahStateTax, which oversees the DMV, which issues the plates and has the relevant guidelines about personalized plates,” he wrote, adding, “Hopefully the tax/DMV folks will look into this!” And, he got exactly what he wished for, but he had an interesting reaction to the news.
After the complaint about the plate, along with the image of it, was posted to social media, officials in Utah said they were reviewing whether the license plate with the message about deportation violated their guidelines. According to The Salt Lake City Tribune, the plate was approved in 2015, despite rules forbidding plates that may offend “good taste and decency” by showing “contempt, ridicule or superiority of a race, religion, deity, ethnic heritage or political affiliation.”
“We’re not sure how it got through,” said Tammy Kikuchi, spokeswoman for the Utah Tax Commission, which oversees the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles. “We’re really quite surprised,” she continued, adding that they were considering recalling the plate. “I don’t know why it was approved in 2015,” she said. “The current DMV director was not the director then.”
This is where things take a confusing turn. As the vanity plate reading “DEPORTM” and Utah’s vow to investigate became national news, thanks to Matt Pacenza’s complaints, he returned to Twitter to express his “mixed feelings” over the ordeal. “What an odd last couple days I have had!” he wrote. “I’ll admit mixed feelings: I’m glad authorities agree this hateful message doesn’t belong on a license plate, but aren’t there MUCH more important stories out there to cover, esp nationally? #utpol.”
Replying to comments on his initial tweet, Matt Pacenza explained that he wasn’t “hurt” by the plate but wrote, “the gov’t has criteria for what’s allowed on personalized plates and I think this one shouldn’t be allowed. They’re supposed to be fun, or playful, or a sports team, not this kind of attack on millions.” He did, however, admit, “It’s not 100 percent clear this plate would violate the guidelines. Be a judgement [sic] call, for sure. However, do we really need more spaces where folks express intense political opinions? Don’t we have enough of those?”
Pacenza vaguely explained what he found offensive about the plate. “It jumped out at me because of how aggressive and confrontational and political the message was,” he said, according to The Blaze. “I’m used to personalized plates being whimsical or playful or personal: GOUTES or DOGMAMA or SKILOVE or something. This felt significantly different.”
As one would imagine, a discussion about free speech quickly erupted on Twitter, but as a Utah state senator explained, free expression rights didn’t extend to messages on license plates. “A private citizen has a first amendment right to say offensive things,” Utah state Sen. Daniel Thatcher (R) tweeted. “The State does not, and has rules about license plates. I believe those rules have been violated here. Hopefully Tax Commission agrees.”
Simply put, a license plate is much different than a t-shirt or sticker with an “offensive” message because it could be viewed as the government’s endorsement of the message. What’s not so clear is why someone would complain about an issue on social media, tagging government agencies, then complain when the issue receives attention and is addressed. If Matt Pacenza felt there were more important things to worry about, then why did he find it necessary to worry about it himself? I guess the take-away is this: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.