The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) succeeded Monday in having a license plate with the slogan “Choose Life” blocked in North Carolina. US District Court Judge James C. Fox granted the liberal group’s request for a preliminary injunction against issuance of the plate while the lawsuit makes its way through the court.
On June 30, Governor Bev Perdue (D) signed a law giving motorists the choice of paying $25 extra to have the plate instead of the standard-issue “First in Flight” logo on their license plate. Other available show a preference for individual NASCAR drivers or carry messages such as “Play Tennis,” “Save the Sea Turtle,” “I’d Rather be Shaggin’,” “Support Our Troops” and “Kids First.” The ACLU argues that the lack of an plate expressing support for abortion violates their First Amendment rights.
Half of the states offer Choose Life plates, which have withstood some, but not all, legal challenges. The US Courts of Appeals for the Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Circuits upheld the constitutionality of the plates in Tennessee, Missouri and Arizona, while the Seventh Circuit struck down the plate in Illinois. The legal issue centers on whether the plate represents governmental speech as opposed to individual speech. The attorney general’s office argued the legislature is directly accountable for the message it chose.
“Each of the voting members of the General Assembly on either side of the issue regarding these plates took a stand which they knew could mean the difference as to whether they might be re-elected or not,” Special Deputy Attorney General Neil Dalton wrote in a brief to the court. “By taking this action they knew that some North Carolina license plates would bear the message ‘Choose Life’ and that no North Carolina license plates would bear the ‘alternative’ messages sought by the opponents of the ‘Choose Life’ plate.”
Judge Fox sided with the ACLU which argued that the legislature prevented individual speech when it specifically rejected amendments to the legislation that would have authorized a competing “Respect Choice” plate.
“The state should not be allowed to use its authority to promote one side of a debate while denying the same opportunity to the other side,” ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation spokesman Katy Parker said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our arguments in this case, and hope the court agrees that the First Amendment prohibits the blatant type of viewpoint discrimination the state has proposed through this one-sided license plate scheme.”