A federal court has ruled North Carolina’s “Choose Life” license plate violates the U.S. Constitution because the state does not also offer pro-abortion plates.
Upholding a previous ruling by a federal judge, the three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, unanimously struck down the plate, claiming it seeks to “privilege speech on one side of the hotly debated issue—reproductive choice—while silencing opposing voices.”
In the court’s opinion, Judge James Wynn said the legislature’s decision to approve the plates while rejecting proposals for “Trust Women” and “Respect Choice” plates amounts to “blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment.”
Central to the issue is whether the license plates represent private speech or government speech. If the latter, then they are not subject to the same “free speech” requirements as private speech, per the U.S. Supreme Court. If the plates constitute private speech, however, then free-speech restrictions apply, meaning one viewpoint may not be given preference over another.
The appeals court panel said that the plates are a mixture of the two but lean more towards private expression.
The North Carolina legislature approved the plates in 2011 following a multi-year effort by pro-life advocates. Before drivers could buy the plates, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit, claiming the free-speech violation. In December 2012, Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Fox blocked the state from issuing the plates, ruling that the availability of pro-life plates without similar availability of pro-abortion plates amounted to viewpoint discrimination.
In January 2013, North Carolina appealed the ruling, leading to the 4th Circuit’s review.
The state now has the option of appealing the panel’s decision either to the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper would say only that the state is currently reviewing the ruling.
North Carolina Family Policy President John Rustin hopes the state will take action. “The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 upheld the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Choose Life license plates in a remarkably similar lawsuit, and we encourage the State of North Carolina to continue its defense of this important law,” Rustin said.
The specialty plates cost an additional $25, $15 of which would support crisis pregnancy centers.
According to Choose Life America, Inc., a non-profit focused on advocating for Choose Life license plates across the country, North Carolina and New York are the only two states currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the pro-life plates. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have approved pro-life plates. Groups in 16 states are currently working for approval, and three states have no effort underway.