Vulgar license plate to be recalled
I saw a personalized Hawaii license plate recently and am not sure if we should have been offended or not. The plate said "FAWKAH." Is this a legitimate word or name or something that slipped by the powers that be?
Answer: It slipped by, although yours was the first "complaint" received by the office that issued the personalized plate.
The plate will be recalled and canceled, said Dennis Kamimura, administrator of the city's Motor Vehicle & Licensing Division.
We did an Internet search and found references to "Jah-Jah Fawkah (Booyaka)" and "Keapaka Fawkah" listed as apparent surnames on one Web site, and a reference to Wadi La Fawkah, Diyala, Iraq, but other references used the word as another spelling for a common vulgarity.
Kamimura said his staff "could not find any legitimate word with this spelling and we were unsuccessful in contacting the person that originally ordered the license plate."
Section 249-9.1 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes, on "Special number plates," gives the city the authority to recall license plates.
That section has this provision: "The director of finance shall not issue special number plates which have the letter and numeral combination of regular plates, are misleading or publicly objectionable."
Kamimura further explained that administrative rules state, "In determining the connotation, inference, or tendency of a given request (for a license plate), the Director (of Finance) shall apply an objective test of what inference may reasonably be detected. ... The request shall be considered to be the most objectionable connotation that reasonably may be ascribed to it."
Additionally, the rules specify "words or connotations of a sexual or vulgar nature, or relating to excretory functions or intimate body parts; drug-related words or connotations; words or connotations which are ethnic in origin or character and which are judged by the Director to be offensive and disparaging."
We had a similar complaint a few years ago (Kokua Line, May 1, 1998), when someone decried the use of "a Yiddish word that many people would find objectionable" on a license plate. We did not use it then, but the word at issue was "schmuck."
Although the word commonly is used as referring to a "jerk," it's also said to be "a vulgarism for penis."
Back then, Kamimura said the registered car owner was contacted, did not contest the complaint and applied for a new license plate.
In this case, a letter noting your question and the decision was sent to the vehicle owner.
If the owner contests the decision, he or she can request a hearing.
"If the person is not satisfied with the decision of the hearings officer, the person may appeal to the Circuit Court," Kamimura said.
He said no one has contested a decision to recall a license plate as far as he can remember.
When someone is "made aware of why the selection was deemed objectionable," and based on the rule about "the most objectionable connotation that reasonably may be ascribed" to a word, "they normally do not pursue the matter," Kamimura said. "The key point is 'reasonably.'"
Anyone who finds a plate objectionable can send a complaint to the Motor Vehicle Branch, P.O. Box 30330, Honolulu, HI, 96820-0300.
Kamimura said he has not concurred with all complaints about a license plate being objectionable.
"If the complainant is not satisfied with our decision, the complainant can also request a hearing," he said.
So far, Hawaii and other states have been able to decide what can and cannot go on a license plate, contending that this is not a matter of free speech.
Some states go beyond just banning obscene or offensive words.
Oregon, for example, won't allow references to "any intoxicating liquor" or other drug-related words.
A wine merchant there, denied the use of "VINO" or "WINE" on his license plate, filed a lawsuit against the Oregon motor vehicle branch, claiming that his First Amendment rights were violated.
However, the Oregon Appeals Court reaffirmed a lower court ruling that the state had a right to decide what goes on a license plate (see www.publications.ojd.state.or.us/A96871.htm).
Essentially, the appeals court said "the proper course" was to look at what is placed on license plates, including custom plates, "as state communication rather than as communication by the plate holders or a combination of both."
Meanwhile, you might not be able to get the city to issue you a license plate that some people might find offensive, but there's nothing to stop you from putting it on a bumper sticker.
In the Aug. 3, 1999, Kokua Line, someone complained about a bumper sticker that read, "It's the speed thing, mother----."
A Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman, quoting the city corporation counsel's office, said then that "It may be tasteless, but it's protected as free speech."
Got a question or complaint?
Call 529-4773, fax 529-4750, or write to Kokua Line, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210, Honolulu 96813. As many as possible will be answered. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
. See also: Useful phone numbers