First Amendment

'Choose Life' license plates, absent an alternative, are unconstitutional, 4th Circuit rules


A federal appeals court has struck down a North Carolina law authorizing “Choose Life” specialty license plates because the state did not offer plates expressing an alternative view.

The Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday, report the Raleigh News & Observer, the Associated Press and a press release by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. How Appealing links to the news stories and the opinion (PDF).

“Issuing a ‘Choose Life’ specialty license plate while refusing to issue a pro-choice specialty license plate constitutes blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment,” the court said.

North Carolina had argued it was free to offer the “Choose Life” plates because they were protected government speech. The 4th Circuit disagreed, saying the speech implicates private speech rights and is not pure government speech.

The state argued an adverse ruling would create too many problems with its specialty plate program, but the 4th Circuit disagreed. The state “sounds the death knell for specialty plates, predicting a ‘flood’ of ‘Kill the Sea Turtles’ and ‘Children Last’ plates,” the opinion said. “Melodrama aside,” the court said, its opinion does not render the state powerless to regulate its specialty plates.

The state already requires 300 applicants before issuing a new specialty plate, the court said, and it could look to Illinois, which has excluded the entire subject of abortion from its specialty plate program. The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the exclusion.

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