On license plates, vulgarity in the eye of the beholder

 

As happens from time to time, it’s now my duty to convene the Court of Public Opinion, a court that’s never wrong.

Before us today is Tanya Lippincott vs. the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. As judge, I will offer no opinion. (Unless I do. I never said I was a fair judge.)

The saga began when Donnie Hicks, Lippincott’s husband, was promoted from Texas Air National Guard tech sergeant to master sergeant. Hicks also is a member of Texas’ Governor’s Twenty, a designation given to the state military forces’ top shooters. In July 2012, Hicks was honored by Gov. Rick Perry at the Capitol for earning his way into the Governor’s Twenty.

Duly proud of his promotion and military service, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lippincott sought a unique gift for him. Wives are good about that. She decided on a special license plate.

Lippincott, who lives in League City, between Houston and Galveston, found that “TXANG” (Texas Air National Guard) was unavailable and “rifleman” was too long. But she came up with an appropriate and available acronym. She ordered a plate noting his service in the Texas Military Forces, the umbrella name for the Texas Air National Guard, Army National Guard, State Guard and Domestic Operations Control.

Let’s now turn to the evidence, starting with a Jan. 31 email to Lippincott from Charles Hall of My Plates, the state contractor that handles specialty license plates: “Thank you for your recent My Plates order. Unfortunately, the combination you chose has been declined by the TxDMV under the criteria VULGARITY.”

The combination she chose is the combination that serves as the official acronym of the Texas Military Forces. You can see it on its website, txmf.us, which includes links to the “official TXMF magazine” and the official “TXMF strategic plan.”

TXMF, it turns out, is good enough for use by the Texas military but too vulgar for use on a Texas license plate. I know I’m just the judge here, but really?

Lippincott was not done. Wives are good about that.

“I would like to appeal this decision,” she wrote in response to the rejection. “My husband is MSgt Donnie Hicks with the Texas Air National Guard. He has been a proud member of the military for over 26 years. He has been a part of the Texas Military Forces (TXMF) since 2001. In 2001, after the 9/11 incident, he was activated to serve both our country and our great state of Texas for several years. This took him not only away from his family but his civilian job. He is still a member of the TXMF under the Texas Air National Guard (TXANG) and serving at the 147th RW (reconnaissance wing) in Houston, Texas.”

And, she noted, “the acronym TXMF is a state-recognized acronym for the Texas Military Forces,” led by the state’s adjutant general, who, it should be noted, uses the TXMF acronym on the txfm.us website.

“If required,” Lippincott wrote in the appeal, “I would be happy to have the Texas Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. John F. Nichols, or Texas Gov. Rick Perry provide you with additional information regarding the Texas Military Forces.”

On Feb. 5, Deanna Dugan of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles told Lippincott by email that her appeal, “after careful consideration,” was denied.

“With license plates being visible to our 20 million Texas citizens, we hope you understand that we are extremely careful to avoid issuing plate selections that may be construed to have an entirely different, and possibly offensive, meaning to the general public than the one intended by the applicant,” Dugan told Lippincott. “As a fellow Texan, we want you to have fun expressing yourself with your vehicle license plates, and we hope you will seek another personalized license plate that you will be proud to display.”

Undeterred (wives are good about that), Lippincott asked for the next step in the appeal process.

“I disagree with the decision to deny a recognized state-defined and designated acronym,” she told Dugan, who told her there were no further appeals and that state law says her agency “may refuse to issue a specialty license plate with a design or alphanumeric pattern that the director or designee considers potentially objectionable to one or more members of the public.”

(As one or more members of the public, I’d like it to be known that I’m potentially offended by the number seven, which seems crooked, and zero, which is nothing. Ban them! Sorry, I’m just supposed to be the judge here, not the jury.)

“We stand by our decision not to approve the requested plate selection,” Dugan told Lippincott with finality.

Lippincott’s subsequent phone conversations with Tim Thompson, deputy director of the agency’s vehicle titles and registration division, produced no change in the decision. And Thompson told me there'll be no change. (His agency referred me to the 86 military-related plate styles that are available.)

“My fear is there would be people out there that would see that particular pattern and interpret it for something beyond what her intent is,” he said, acknowledging her intent to honor “a noble group and cause. … But unfortunately, most of the people out there would have no idea what the true intent of her message is.”

And, Thompson wanted me to know, his agency has rejected an application for a plate saying HMFIC.

Which leads us to dealing with — delicately and in a way that seeks to avoid anything potentially objectionable to one or more members of the public — the possibility that some in the Court of Public Opinion don’t immediately understand the problem caused by TXMF. TX is OK. But MF is a common (to some) acronym for a male person who is, shall we say, closer to his mother than is generally considered healthy.

Not only is TXMF an official, often-used acronym in state governmentdom, the MF part has a curious link to our current governor. Fans of on-camera gaffes will recall the 2005 incident when Perry, unaware the camera was still rolling at the end of a television interview, cavalierly lobbed a gratuitous “Adios, mofo.”

With that, and by the power I’ve duly vested in myself, I now place the case in the good hands of the Court of Public Opinion: If TXMF is good enough for the Texas Military Forces (and if mofo is good enough for the governor’s mouth), is TXMF good enough for use on a Texas license plate?

My inbox awaits your input.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: kherman@statesman.com.

© 2014 Cox Newspapers

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