Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Licence to thrill limited by MPI

Watchful eyes kept on vanity plates

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You might get a chuckle after you've figured out what IB6UB9 means, but Manitoba Public Insurance says smut and swear words don't belong on Friendly Manitoba's licence plates.

Nearly 500 vanity plates have been rejected over the last 30-odd years for being offensive, profane or even too Scottish.

The phrase UPYRKILT was vetoed, one of the tamer vanity plates people proposed.

More than a third of the rejects were scrubbed for being too sexual, including PNS NVY and SHWINGR.

'Some of these slogans are really inventive, so kudos to the submitters. But we catch them'

-- MPI spokesman Brian Smiley

"We always keep in mind what the public perception of a phrase might be," said MPI's Brian Smiley. "We don't want to offend other drivers."

Also deemed too sexy was any references to a ubiquitous erotic bestseller, which inspired at least three people to craft vanity plates such as 50 GREY and 50SHADZ.

Some of the no-go plates are pretty tame, such as UPUTZZ or SNOSUX. A half-dozen involve teenaged-boy humour about bodily functions such as DRPOO or IGOT 2P.

Others are just cryptic, forcing MPI staff to spend a lot of time on Google and Urban Dictionary or reviewing old Seinfeld episodes in order to reject MULVA. Still others are plain obscure, including several plates that include the acronym RAT, which stands for remote administration tool or Remote Access Trojan, a tool computer hackers use to infiltrate someone's computer.

"Some of these slogans are really inventive, so kudos to the submitters," said Smiley. "But we catch them."

Smiley said staff have rejected only about two per cent of the 22,000 vanity plates in the province. But there are three or four a week that don't make the cut.

"One of the most popular plate slogans is to use the year and model of a vehicle," said Smiley. "We also get a lot of requests for nicknames, hometowns and sports teams."

MPI rejected some vanity plates for technical reasons -- not enough digits, too similar to an existing plate. MPI generally frowns on swapping letters for numbers, such as using a zero for the letter O.

MPI also rejects any religious plates, such as CHRIST or NIRNKAR, a Sikh reference to God.

Asked whether MPI might be vulnerable to a challenge under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the rights of free expression and religion, one University of Manitoba law professor says MPI is probably in the clear.

"I think it would be upheld," said Karen Busby, a constitutional law specialist.

Freedom of religion only protects practices that bring someone closer to the divine, and a vanity plate that reads JAH 4EV probably wouldn't meet that test. And, the government can limit free-speech rights if the limit is deemed reasonable in a free and democratic society. Avoiding driver distraction could be deemed a reasonable limit, and one that minimally impairs a person's free speech. But, says Busby, most sign laws fail on the "minimal impairment" test, forcing government to better tailor the rules and narrow the criteria.

If someone with deep pockets challenged MPI on that basis, plates that are only mildly questionable such as POOKEE2 or ONBAIL might make it past the censors.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

"Suggestive - Offensive"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A15

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Updated on Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 7:38 AM CDT: Adds video, slideshow, database.

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