Sal Bartolotta of Bremen poses with his 2007 Toyota Tundra given to him by his father with the vanity plate "KISMYAS" on Friday, May 7, 2021. Credit: Caitlin Andrews / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — When Sal Bartolotta’s father died in 2019, he felt the best way to honor him was to put his final words on the last thing he left him: a beige 2007 Toyota Tundra pickup.

Those words were “kiss my ass,” muttered under his breath while sleeping in a Florida hospital bed the day before he died of cancer. Bartolotta figures his father — a “vocal, feisty guy” — was arguing with someone in his sleep.

The phrase got shortened to “KISMYAS” to meet Maine’s seven-character plate limit and it was put on the truck as soon as Bartolotta drove it back home to Bremen.

“I figured there was no better way to remember him,” Bartolotta said.

Not everyone who has a profane vanity plate has such a sweet story to back it up. But Bartolotta’s explanation underlies the tricky speech situation that lawmakers are in as they advance a measure that could ban the plate and others deemed “vulgar.” In jeopardy are hundreds of plates bearing unprintable terms to “PHUK U2” and “URADINK.”

It comes after Maine lawmakers on the Transportation Committee advanced a bill in a 7-4 vote on Friday that would allow Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office to refuse to issue or recall plates referencing a long list of off-limits topics from genitalia and sexual functions to race, gender, disabilities or slang referencing those things or other topics.

State Auditor Matt Dunlap (right) chats with Secretary of State Shenna Bellows after her election to the post at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 2, 2020. At far left is Attorney General Aaron Frey. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The measure, from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former secretary of state, is backed by Bellows, a Democrat in her first year on the job. Matt Dunlap, her predecessor, largely stopped screening vanity plate requests after a law change in 2015 that came about after the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine — which Bellows ran before then — raised constitutional questions. Plates likely to incite violence, such as racial slurs, are still barred.

But any foray into First Amendment regulation is tricky. A state attorney told lawmakers on Friday that it would be “really impossible to craft a statute that addresses the contents of vanity plates in a way that will be completely free” from a legal threat.

There have been six attempts to change Maine’s license plate laws since 1985, with about half of those failing, according to Maine’s legislative library. The most recent change is likely the cause for some of the more risque plates circulating today.

“If I cannot say the license plate on the radio, or the evening news, then the state shouldn’t be forced to issue it on what is actually state property,” Bellows said.

Steven Seeley of Vassalboro, who owns a 2019 Volkswagen Jetta bearing a “FUKH8TRS” plate, said the change would step on his free-speech rights over something “as stupid as a license plate.”

“I’m not going to take the plate off until I get a ticket or I’m legally required to take it off,” Seeley said.

Zachary Heiden, the ACLU of Maine’s chief lawyer, argued that the state cannot limit a plate because it finds it offensive. That could quickly lead to lawsuits. New Hampshire’s high court ruled in 2014 that a man had the right to a “COPSLIE” plate. California rules barring plates with vulgarities were tossed out by a federal judge in 2020.

“One thing that unites us as a state and a nation — one of the few things — is our commitment to freedom of expression as a fundamental freedom,” Heiden wrote in testimony.

But Bellows noted speech has limits, citing the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing regulation of certain indecent terms. Apparently, many Mainers feel that way, too. Vulgar license plates are the “No. 1 thing” she said she gets phone calls on.

She also said the state has to walk a fine line on the subject, adding an appeals process to the bill on Friday for people who feel their intentions have been misinterpreted. That was not enough for four Republicans on the transportation panel who opposed the measure Friday.

Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

“This is where we get into this mess, where it’s subjective on what we’re allowing or not allowing,” said Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel. “If ‘F-COVID’ can’t be on a plate, that’s a huge interpretation on that.”

But Rep. Mike Perkins, R-Oakland, said he hated to think of having to explain a vulgar plate to his two young granddaughters while driving. “Why don’t we hold a moral compass and do what’s right?” he said.

Bartolotta said he understands that point of view, but he noted “ass” is heard frequently on TV. While he may fight any decision to rescind the plate, he would ultimately abide. But he might then get the phrase in vinyl letters across the back of the truck.

“It’ll be a lot more visible that way than some small, rinky plate,” he said.