Dave Wardamasky has at least until winter until the state may ask for his vanity plate back under a new law banning “vulgar” plates. He is ready to fight that decision.
The 56-year-old from Blue Hill was told in 2019 that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable nervous system disease and got a “FUCKALS” plate last year. He thinks he will be lucky if he meets any of his grandchildren. He will probably not dance at his daughter’s wedding.
Under a Maine law that was passed earlier this summer and goes into effect on Monday, Wardamasky and others with plates adorned with swear words, crude references, slang or words meant to sound like those things will likely have to give up their plates at some point.
“I find it kind of outrageous that people are more outraged with a one-syllable word than a deadly disease there’s no treatment for,” Wardamasky said.
People who have the plates will be able to keep them at least a little longer as Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office begins making rules formalizing what words are not allowed and how people will be able to appeal any plates deemed too coarse for the roadways. But new, crude requests will be held and a free-speech battle on the issue could ensue.
Bellows, a Democrat, said she understands Wardamasky’s feelings. But she stood by her argument that the state cannot be forced to put language on its property that it deems offensive. A bumper sticker or a vinyl decal will get anyone’s message across, she said.
“There isn’t a national manual that says, ‘These words are OK and these are not,’” she said. “It’s a complicated process, and it’s one that we’re taking very seriously.”
Staff at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles met through this summer and fall to think about how the law should be put into effect. That involved reviewing a list of known suspects and other potential offenders, as well as how to recall plates and how appeals would work, Bellows said. Those who disagree with the state’s decisions will have 14 days to appeal under the law.
The rulemaking will allow the public to weigh in with their feelings directly. It will likely face opposition from Bellows’ former employer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which has criticized the law as violating free-speech rights. The group’s concerns were instrumental in a 2015 law change that led to Maine’s previous laissez-faire stance on vanity plates.
In the meantime, anyone who puts in for a plate that might not pass muster after Monday will have that plate be put on hold at least until the rulemaking process is done. They can get a standard plate or pick a cleaner vanity plate to have a viable registration, Bellows said.
The review process will likely be ongoing as people test the state’s limits. In the meantime, Wardamasky said he will hold onto his plate in hope of teaching people about his disease. When the time comes, he hopes others will join him in fighting to keep their plates.
“I don’t have the financial resources to fight it, personally, but if somebody in the ACLU would like to help me out, I’m all aboard,” he said.