Politics & Policy

Federal Court Kiboshes Pro-Life License Plate

North Carolina can't make viewpoint distinctions in specialty tags, circuit court rules.

A federal court has ruled North Carolina’s “Choose Life” license plate unconstitutional.

In a unanimous decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the pro-life license plate violates the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause because the state voted against proposals to create pro-choice license places with messages like “Trust Women” and “Respect Choice.”

“The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech,’” Judge James A. Wynn writes in the court’s opinion. “Chief amongst the evils the First Amendment prohibits are government ‘restrictions distinguishing among different speakers, allowing speech by some but not others.’”

North Carolina, the court says, is favoring one side of “a hotly debated issue” while “silencing opposing voices.”

In 2011, North Carolina approved the “Choose Life” plate along with 79 other specialty tags while rejecting pro-choice plates. After the ACLU brought suit, the state argued that the license plates are governmental speech, and therefore the state has discretion over the messages on them free from First Amendment viewpoint-neutral constraints. However, the court ruled that the license plates are a mix of both governmental and individual speech and are therefore governed by individual First Amendment protections.

“The specialty plate speech at issue implicates private speech rights, and thus First Amendment protections apply,” Wynn writes.

The pro-life license plate has never seen daylight because a district court judge temporarily blocked the plate in 2011 pending his 2012 decision that the plates were unconstitutional. The circuit court opinion follows an appeal from North Carolina’s attorney general.

In 2002, the Fourth Circuit similarly ruled that Virginia’s ban on license plates with a confederate flag was unconstitutional. In 2004 it ruled South Carolina’s “Choose Life” plates unconstitutional on the grounds of viewpoint discrimination.

“Today’s ruling protects the right of North Carolinians of all political beliefs to have equal access to avenues for free speech,” Chris Brooks, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation said. “We would have made the exact same argument if the situation was reversed, and the state planned on issuing a pro-choice plate while not offering one expressing the opposite point of view.”

As of this writing, the South Carolina Department of Justice had not issued a statement on the ruling and did not respond to a request for comment.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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