Too naughty to drive: Why Illinois rejected nearly 400 license plate requests in 2022

Many of recently rejected requests were doomed because they alluded to the ‘F word,’ records show

Nearly 400 requests for personalized or vanity license plates were rejected by the Illinois secretary of state's office in 2022 because they were deemed offensive, joining a list of more than 7,000 other alphanumeric combinations previously rejected.

There are nearly 1 million vehicles on the road with vanity or personalized license plates issued by the Illinois secretary of state’s office.

But there are 7,387 alphanumeric combinations requested for such license plates over the years that will never make it to a vehicle’s bumper, including 383 rejected in 2022 alone.

“We love the creativity and pride Illinoisans take in choosing their personalized license plates,” said recently elected Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias. “Most plate requests are approved, but a small percentage fail to meet the standards of good taste and decency, and are rejected because they violate the state’s vehicle code.”

In the last month alone, 17 more requests were rejected and added to the list, according to data released by Giannoulias’ office. Many of the most recently rejected requests were doomed because they contained some allusion to the “F word,” records show.

State law allows the Vehicle Services Department to reject any request for personalized or vanity plates that “creates a connotation that is offensive to good taste and decency.”

All types of obscenities -- or combination of letters that could be construed as an obscenity -- will get flagged, including expletives, racial epithets, drug references and most words with violent overtones. Obscenities in other languages are also forbidden.

Several politicians have been the target on numerous rejected submissions, including current President Joe Biden and his three predecessors. Vulgarities aimed at Gov. J.B. Pritzker and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are also on the state’s naughty plate list, records show.

Officials from Giannoulias’ office said most requests for personalized or vanity plates are done through the state’s “pick-a-plate” website, That’s where last year’s 383 rejected requests were initially submitted.

Some drivers still submit paper requests, but “very few” of those were rejected, said Henry Haupt, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office. An exact number wasn’t available.

“There is a small group from our Vehicle Services Department that review requests with an eye out for anything tawdry, lewd or offensive,” Haupt said. “If a request is declined, it automatically goes on the rejection list.”

Vehicle owners have tried to get creative by replacing letters with numbers, abbreviations and even spelling obscenities backward, all to no avail.

If something untoward does slip through, these customized license plates can also be recalled and replaced at no cost to the vehicle owner, Haupt said. There’s an appeals process if a request is rejected, but that happens “no more than a few times a year,” he said.

Of the 54,236 personalized or vanity plates requested in 2022, less than 1% were rejected.

But keeping license plates wholesome comes with a cost to the state. Vehicle owners pay $94 extra for a new vanity plate, which is all letters. They pay an extra $47 for a new personalized plate, which is a combination of letters and numbers.

That means if a car owner didn’t choose a different customized license plate last year, the state lost somewhere between $18,001 and $36,002.

Vehicles owners with those types of plates also pay extra at renewal time.

The number of rejected plates is down from recent years.

Records show 572 plate requests were rejected in 2021, and 499 in 2020.

“The number of requests was abnormally high during the COVID-19 pandemic when more people were spending their days at home,” Haupt explained.

Jake Griffin Daily Herald Media Group

Jake Griffin is the assistant managing editor for watchdog reporting at the Daily Herald