As you may recall, back in early December a US District Court Judge ruled North Carolina’s new “Choose Life” license plate unconstitutional. The basis for the ruling was that the plate constituted viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment “in the absence of a pro-choice alternative.” But if you think that particular story is over, think again.
The state of North Carolina filed an appeal Friday to a judge’s ruling that license plates with the words “Choose Life” on them are unconstitutional because the state does not offer an alternative for supporters of abortion rights.
The state filed its appeal without comment through the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, according to court documents.
The original suit was brought by the ACLU, who called the news of the appeal, “unfortunate.” Given that license plates like these are already available in 29 states – widely supported by Choose Life America Inc. – it would certainly seem as if there’s room for an appeal. But as with any new law, a lot depends on the circumstances and the specifics of how it was implemented.
Personally, I find the idea of using license plates for anything other than identifying the owner of the vehicle a rather poor one to begin with. I suppose I don’t have any problem when it’s just a logo to promote the state, but when the government decides to designate that space for pushing an opinion on one side of a controversial subject, it looks even more dubious. It’s simply asking or trouble for no good reason. Do they honestly think hearts and minds are going to be changing on any hotly debated issue of the day based on what people see on a car bumper?
But if we are to have plates like these, it seems that two points would need to be kept in mind while implementing the program. First of all, the plate should be optional, and North Carolina’s passes this test. I happen to support responsible, legal gun ownership, and if my state offered a plate with a slogan along the lines of, “An Armed Society is a Polite Society” I’d probably look into getting one. But by the same token, if my neighbor chooses not to exercise his Second Amendment rights, I wouldn’t wish to force him to have such a plate on his car.
The second point is a bit trickier, but since the courts will apparently be forced to take up the question, it’s an important one. This type of move turns the state produced and controlled license plates into what is, essentially, a government endorsed bulletin board for public debate. By not offering an alternative, I can see where the courts might argue that the government is effectively telling drivers they have a choice of advertising the opinion of the legislative majority or remaining silent in this particular forum. On that basis alone I could see this getting struck down again further up the line. And that could lead to a torrent of lawsuits in the other 29 states offering them, depending on how they implemented their own laws.