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

AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to allow Maine to rescind or bar vanity license plates with swear words and other profane references sailed through the state Senate in an initial Tuesday vote, setting up an easy road to passage for a bill that may be challenged in court.

The bill from Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, would remove roughly 400 plates from the roads containing profanity, slang and other so-called “vulgar” plates. It is backed by Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat who led the American Civil Liberties Union in Maine, before it pushed the state to allow profane plates as a free-speech issue.

The bill received a 7 to 4 vote out of the Legislature’s transportation committee in early May. Republicans were somewhat supportive but put forward a change to preserve plates with abbreviations or only representing the phonetic spelling of a word. The Senate rejected that proposal but agreed to an amendment enshrining an appeals process for recalled plates. The measure faces further action in both chambers.

The measure is likely to be challenged by First Amendment groups should it succeed. The ACLU of Maine argued the state cannot oppose a plate’s language because it finds it offensive. Bellows has argued the state can, provided it sticks to certain words the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed can be limited.