The Official Approval Letter for Dave Silverman’s ATHE1ST License Plate

After initially being told he could not get a New Jersey license plate reading ATHE1ST on grounds that it was “offensive,” American Atheists’ President Dave Silverman finally received an official confirmation yesterday from the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission.

This is the email Silverman received from the MVC on Wednesday morning:

Success! More importantly, success without litigation. The MVC called it a “clerical error.” I’m not sure if I believe that, but at least this was resolved quickly and with a happy ending.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    The MVC called it a “clerical error.”

    What’s not to believe? A clerk made an error. That doesn’t get into the nature or motivation behind the error.

    • Art_Vandelay

      How do you accidentally type, “It is offensive?”

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        You hit a checkbox on a computer screen that causes output that includes the text “offensive” and also the text “further clarification needed”

        • Art_Vandelay

          Could be. Hang on…let me reply to your comment below.

      • Gus

        I believe it was a clerical error. A clerk erred in believing that plate was offensive, that it did not constitute protected speech, and that the individual applying for it wouldn’t fight back.

        There’s also a slim possibility that the clerk was even dumber and just saw a letter replaced with a number, had no idea what the plate was actually trying to say and assumed somebody was trying to get away with something.

        This state did ban the plate O4VETTE for being offensive for some reason. Apparently if they don’t know what it means and it’s got an odd mix of numbers and letters, they just deny it.

  • code_monkey_steve

    “clerical error”

    Why is the MVC employing clerics, anyway?

    • RomIsHere

      I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one thinking this

    • baal

      Historical noise, clerical errors are done by clerks not clerics. I imagine in the days of the scriptorum the two were one (in a totally non-gay way).

    • busterggi

      Because they can wear armor AND cast spells of course!

  • Mario Strada

    Clerical Error = “A cleric screwed up”

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’d be inclined to accept clerical error. Heck, it could be that software identified the plate as essentially one that already existed (1 vs I), and the human involved just checked a box that related to “rejected by the magic computer”.

    The problem with assuming not clerical error is that you then have someone not only assuming atheist = offensive, but thinking they can skip the rules on it, AND nobody will notice. You don’t have to know it’s for David Silverman, or who he is, to know that the person is probably going to appeal something like that.

    It just doesn’t add up to me as anything but a mistake.

    • Art_Vandelay

      Of course, we’ll never know but you read this blog just about every day, right? Half of the posts are about people losing their shit over the mere existence of atheists. It it really that unfair to think some random clerk at the MVC is bigoted against atheists? It’s not exactly a tiny fraction of the population that fits the mold in this country.

    • Karl Heidemann

      Oh Please, Rich.
      Computers DO NOT confuse 1s and Is.
      Never. EVER.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        They do when they are programmed to treat them as possibly the same since humans may confuse 1s and Is (and Os and 0s). Which is why software that auto-generates passwords should avoid 1s and ls and Os and 0s, so that the human reading their new password doesn’t have any trouble knowing what the characters are.

        tl;dr; they may not want to plates with the same ‘word’ in use. I don’t know, but that part seems plausible to me.

    • iamgog

      The reason for the rejection was explicitly given as “offensive.”

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        The reason given was “Objectionable or Need Further Clarification.”

        The ‘or’ makes me think software rejected it (for being essentially the same as a previously existing plate), and a lazy human picked a poor rejection category.

        Most people disagree with me- which is fine. As Art says, we’ll never know.

  • John Gills

    In the early days of vanity license plates, we were told that a descendent of General Hooker, of Civil War fame, was at first denied a license plate that read, “Hooker.”

    • GubbaBumpkin

      I recall a DJ telling how his application for “3M TA3″ was denied. It seems pretty mild today, even if you read it backwards.

  • Nomad

    I’m suspecting that the only reason this was resolved so quickly was that it happened to a high profile individual who had the media clout to get the story spread all across the country. Otherwise it would have had to go to the courts. And if you followed that story of the woman who was hit with a stop light camera fine in NJ when she hadn’t even been in the state, and who ended up having to just pay the fine because the court system screwed her over at every turn and made real justice cost many times what the fine would have, you might suspect as I do that an average joe atheist would have gotten exactly nowhere that way.

    And secondly, Rich, the reason people are assuming this was intentional is that this happens so often that it’s predictable. People see signs promoting Christianity all the time and don’t blink an eye. But someone puts up a billboard mentioning atheism and OMG, it’s so offensive that fine upstanding citizens have to go vandalize it immediately. And that’s if the billboard is even put up, often advertising companies simply refuse to carry the messages in the first place because they find the idea of a person that doesn’t believe in an invisible magic man in the sky so offensive. Theists hold press conferences so that they can announce to the general public how offensive the subject is for them.

    So yes, there are reasons that when you get a notice informing you that a license plate proclaiming you to be an atheist is offensive, you believe that the intention of the rejection was in fact to call atheism offensive.

    The most positive interpretation I can put on that clerical error thing is to interpret it as meaning “one of our clerks made the error of confusing his personal religious beliefs with his duty as a representative of the state”. If you were trying to downplay the fact that one of your employees thinks he’s working for god instead of the state this would be an obvious way to do it.

    Of course that also implies that the clerk is still rubber stamping away until he comes across another plate that offends his delicate Christian sensibilities. And the next time the car owner probably won’t be a high profile individual who can bring enough media attention onto the situation to receive a swift resolution.

  • Matt Bowyer

    I find it ridiculous that all this is newsworthy. A guy wants to put “Atheist” on his license plate. Can’t wait til the day when this isn’t a big deal.

    • HollowGolem

      The president of AA wants to put it on his plate. It’d be like if the rapper Eminem wanted the license plate “EM-N-EM” or something similar. That’s the point of vanity plates. They identify something for the user. And they’re a way for the state to make some extra cash.

  • suzeb1964

    ATHE1ST license plate >>>Want!

  • the moother

    8 to 10 weeks to print a couple of plates? Wot? Not enough prisoners in Murca to get them printed faster? Or, are they put on back-order from China?

  • A3Kr0n

    Wait 8-10 weeks? If they also charge his credit card before they ship them, then they’re made by Makerbot Industries. In all truthfulness though, I was conceived by
    Makerbot,
    and incubated
    on one of their printers. Darned Disqus, now I have two posts!

  • Erik Wiseman

    While I’m glad there was no massive waste of money and resources on this, I’m simultaneously disappointed we didn’t get to see legal fireworks.

  • Robster

    Eight to ten weeks for the manufacture of a pair of licence plates! Jeesus, are they handcrafted in a Tibetan monastery by cloistered monks in funny hats or something?

  • Mick

    Silverman got his plate accepted as soon as the department realized he had a public voice. I’ll bet there have been plenty of other interesting plates designated “offensive” and the applicant has had to accept the ruling because one lone voice of protest was not enough to cause a change.


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