A Utah license plate apparently advocating a hardline approach to immigration has triggered outrage online, and officials are now investigating.
The license plate, which reads, “DEPORTM,” came to state and national attention after Matt Pacenza, a Salt Lake City English teacher, posted a photo of it to Twitter and Facebook last Thursday.
“Hey [Utah Driver License Division), how does this plate I just saw not violate your guidelines?” he wrote.
Other Twitter users called the license plate “offensive,” “classless” and “horrific.” One Kansas-based author pointed out that Utah originally belonged to the natives.
Horrific. Utah used to be Mexico, yeah? And native before that? They should just say thank you and live and let live.
— ??????? ?. ????? (@Atypeofwriter) January 9, 2020
Many commenters wondered how the had been approved by authorities or demanded government action. Some managed to link the controversy to President Donald Trump.
On the other hand, a number of Twitter users mocked what they deemed pearl clutching or defended the license plate a form of free speech.
Pacenza told The Associated Press he had spotted the “DEPORTM” license plate on the road while driving and snapped the photo.
He checked online and confirmed that not just anything goes on vanity plates. State rules bar messages that express contempt for any race, religion of political opinion.
“It did jump out at me. I was surprised by it,” Pacenza said. “What you find out right away is they do reject all kinds of plates.”
Three other people told the Salt Lake Tribune they had complained about the license plate as recently as a few weeks ago.
Utah takes action against “DEPORTM” license plate
Daniel Thatcher, a Republican state senator, said license plates are state-approved messages as opposed to personal speech, so different rules apply.
“A private citizen has a first amendment right to say offensive things. The State does not, and has rules about license plates,” he said on Twitter last Friday. “I believe those rules have been violated here.”
Thatcher added that the license plate was using “State resources to promote divisiveness and racism” and the state tax commission was investigating.
Utah lawmakers were scheduled to question the director of the Division of Motor Vehicles and his boss, the tax commission director, about the license plate at a hearing Wednesday.
However, some Twitter users suggested Utah officials should find better things to do with their time. Even Pacenza questioned the priorities of the national media.
“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?” he asked on Twitter Sunday.
What an odd last couple days I have had! 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 https://t.co/7XtoYxWgYE
— Matt Pacenza (@mattpacenza) January 12, 2020
Utah gets about 450 requests a month for vanity plates, The AP reported. In addition to hateful messages, the state bars vulgarity, references to drugs or sex acts or suggestions of something dangerous, according to the DMV’s website.
License plates that violate state rules can be recalled, though the owner can appeal the decision. It was unclear how “DEPORTM” made it past the censors, and the owner has not been identified.
Tammy Kikuchi, a spokeswoman for the tax commission, said “DEPORTM” was approved in 2015, when the department was under different leadership. Kikuchi declined to comment further on the case, saying it is now under review.