February 18, 2014 — A federal appeals court last week ruled that it is unconstitutional for North Carolina to offer license plates with the message "Choose Life" because the state does not also offer plates that support abortion rights, Courthouse News Service reports (McCue, Courthouse News Service, 2/14).
In 2011, the state General Assembly approved the "Choose Life" plates but rejected proposals for plates with messages backing abortion rights. For each plate sold, $15 would go to not-for-profit crisis pregnancy centers that oppose abortion. However, the state has never manufactured any of the plates because of the legal dispute (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/8/13).
Friday's decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court's ruling. "Because the specialty plate speech at issue implicates private speech rights and is not pure government speech, North Carolina's authorizing a 'Choose Life' plate while refusing to authorize a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment," the three-judge panel wrote.
The judges added, "North Carolina invites its vehicle owners to '[m]ake a statement' and 'promote themselves' -- but only if they are on the government's side of a highly divisive political issue."
Chris Brook, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the ruling "protects the right of North Carolinians of all political beliefs to have equal access to avenues for free speech."
Noelle Talley, a spokesperson for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (R), said state attorneys are reviewing the ruling (Courthouse News Service, 2/14).