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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

After Six Years on the Road, 'XONSUX' Plates Get a No-Go From DMV - by Beth Bragg

Annette Nelson-Wright thinks XONSUX, and she's not afraid to say so.
 
The Department of Motor Vehicles thinks her opinion is offensive and wants Nelson-Wright to give up the vanity license plates she's had for the last six years or so.
 
And I think I have a solution everyone can live with.
 
Nelson-Wright gives up her plates, which we trust have been deemed offensive due to the use of "SUX" and not because they take a dig at a big oil company in a state more inclined to walk on nails than upset a big oil company.
 
Then she orders a new set of vanity plates. I suggest XONBAD. Or IH8XON. Or, to remind Alaskans of the billions of dollars Exxon's been told to pay fishermen and others damaged by the 1989 oil spill but won't, XONOHS, because EXXON OWES is way too long.
 
Or if she really wanted to hit where it hurts, Nelson-Wright might suggest we all BUYBP.
 
Nelson-Wright, 37, was born and raised in Alaska and was deeply wounded when one of Exxon's boys parked a tanker on a reef out in Prince William Sound and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil 17 years ago.
 
Some time in 1999, maybe 2000, she decided to express her sorrow and disgust through vanity plates. She was living in Juneau at the time and mailed her request, figuring she'd be SOL because of the SUX element.
 
To her surprise, the plates showed up in the mail. For two or three years, she drove around with them. In 2002, she moved to California to attend graduate school and returned in 2004, this time settling in the Valley with her husband. Bruce Wright took the old XONSUX plates to the Palmer DMV office to see if he could renew them and put them on the couple's gold Lexus RX300. A DMV worker said no problem.
 
Two years later, the couple received a letter from DMV via registered mail. Someone had complained about the plate, and DMV decided it was inappropriate.
 
Carl Springer, a registrar with DMV, said the state uses a computer program to sort acceptable vanity plates from unacceptable ones, but it's not foolproof. The word "SUX" should have doomed the plate, but somehow XONSUX beat the system. Twice.
 
And so for about four years, Nelson-Wright has spread her message about Exxon in Juneau, the Valley and Anchorage with nary a scowl or an obscene gesture coming her way in response.
 
"I've never had any bad reactions to it," she said. "I've had people pass me on the highway laughing and giving me the thumbs-up."
 
Nelson-Wright, a sociologist who works at the Career Academy in Anchorage, said she's appealing the decision and will get an informal hearing in about 45 days. She calls the process a stay of execution. "I have 45 more days to drive around with them."
 
Nelson-Wright is fighting on sheer principle. Not just because the plates were approved twice by the DMV and had been in circulation for years before drawing a single complaint. But because to her, the phrase "XONSUX" is far less offensive than Exxon's actions in Alaska over the years.
 
"Tell me why that's offensive," she said of her license-plate message, "and I'll tell you how Exxon has harmed Alaska. I see pictures of the oil spill, and that's offensive to me. Fishermen's lives have been ruined, and that's offensive to me. The ecosystem has been damaged, and that's offensive to me.
 
"And I'm being told my plate is offensive?"
 
Makes you wonder if any oil executives are driving around with plates that say XONROX, and whether a complaint would result in their revocation.
 
After all, around here a declaration of Exxon's greatness might offend more of us than a declaration of its shortcomings does.
 
Beth Bragg's opinion column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
 
© 2006 The Anchorage Daily News

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