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License plate debate boils

Your nickname looks pretty good on that little red sports car.

Your nickname looks pretty good on that little red sports car.

And who can argue with KIDTAXI on your minivan.

But start calling for the president's impeachment on your license plate and you might run into a little bit of trouble - at least in some states.

The South Dakota Division of Motor Vehicles is trying to recall Heather Morijah's license plates after someone complained about the political statement her silver Prius made, with plates reading MPEACHW.

Deb Hillmer, South Dakota's division of motor vehicles director, said MPEACHW meets the state's criterion to prohibit any letter combination which "carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency." The plates never would have been issued if DMV officials had caught their meaning at the time Morijah applied, she said.

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Morijah disagrees and says she does not intend to hand them over, despite the state's threat to send law enforcement to retrieve them.

"The plate isn't in poor taste," she said. "It's not sexual in nature or pornographic. To me, a political message should not be considered offensive."

She said she is hesitant to give up the plates because she believes her free-speech rights are being unnecessarily limited.

"It's kind of sad to me," Morijah said. "For one person to be able to say they're offended because it's different from their political beliefs seems really arbitrary. And I don't think the law is very clear about what 'offensive' means."

Hillmer said the law gives the state great latitude in making that determination. Morijah is free to exercise her free-speech rights in ways that don't involve state property or implied state sanction of a given message, Hillmer said.

"They have every right to use that free speech, but they need to do it with a bumper sticker," she said. "That plate is property of South Dakota. And that (message) is not something the state should advocate."

But while South Dakota officials are opposed to the plates, North Dakota's motor vehicle director for the state's Department of Transportation, Lorrie Pavlicek, said she does not believe the plates would meet the state's threshold to block the plate as offensive.

North Dakota has a guidance policy for offensive plates, restricting things such as profanity and references to illegal drugs. The state also takes into consideration a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed a Missouri resident to keep a license plate some deemed offensive.

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"Most of the time in working with that person and making some different suggestions, we're usually able to satisfy what they're trying to portray on their plate and yet make sure that the public might not misinterpret that," Pavlicek said.

Minnesota also prohibits any personalized plate that "could offend public morals or decency," according to a state application for special plates.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541

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