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GR8 FUN: Vanity plates often ingenious

By Brian Ojanpa

The Free Press of Mankato

MANKATO -- Vanity, thy name is license plate -- and has been in Minnesota since 1977.

The popularity of vanity plates, officially known as personalized license plates, ebbs and flows. Minnesota has more than 55,000 on the road, and about 8,000 first-time buyers enter the fray each year, paying $100 for up to 7-character monikers ranging from slyly provocative to wholly mundane.

4U MOM, and variations thereof, is an uncreative but common choice of vanity plate gift-givers.

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"People gotta get more clever each year because everything they've tried before, we've caught," says Joe Bowler, of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

To get a personalized license, people must include on their application forms written explanations of what the requested moniker means.

Similarly, Bowler says the department receives at least 10 applications a year for plates using letters that -- tasteful translation here -- instruct others to consume the driver.

Bowler says one applicant tried the rear-view approach with this one. The application form for 3M TA3 explained that the buyer was a "technical assistant at 3M."

Nicollet County Treasurer Myrna Shoeb professes bemused curiosity at the lengths to which some will go.

"Some of them are really clever. It kind of makes you wonder how long they thought about it."

Two that stick out for Shoeb: a veterinarian's COW DR and MY LEGCY (My Legacy), purchased by a woman who had acquired the car of her late father.

In other parts of the nation, these plates have been spotted: YY2BWD (too wise to be wed) and XPD4IT (apparently, this person's ex paid for the car).

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What's not allowed on vanity plates?

"Nothing obscene, either frontwards or backwards," says Patty O'Connor, director of the Blue Earth County License Center.

Of course, definitions of obscenity have always been moving targets. Among vanity plates that have been approved include GR8BUNS (for a northern Minnesota bakery truck).

Plates that advertise products also are disallowed, though there have been exceptions.

Late Mankato soft-drink distributor Fred Lutz Sr. tooled around town for years with plates reading MR 7UP. And his son, Fred Jr., followed suit with plates espousing UNCOLA.

Bowler says a third category of vanity-plate no-no includes monikers deemed generally offensive. Bowler says the state once turned down a request for DAGO, even though it was sought by an Italian-American. Conversely, the long-disallowed INDIAN was finally approved when an Indian requested it, stating that he viewed the term with pride.

Bowler says regional sensibilities also come into play. In Minnesota, SNOW and its variations are acceptable, while that wordplay is banned in California because it is slang for cocaine, and California prohibits plates with drug references.

Meanwhile in Missouri, a man who was denied a request for KKK sued the state, claiming his right to freedom of speech was violated. For borderline requests such as these, Bowler says Minnesota has adopted a "qualified approval" stance. That is, plates are issued but with a caveat: They can be revoked if the public files complaints.

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Then there was the personalized moniker in another state that easily passed muster because it is, after all, the vanity plate's essence: ILOVEME.

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