A North Carolina pro-life license plate was declared unconstitutional because there is no pro-choice alternative for motorists with opposing beliefs.
North Carolina lawmakers had approved the “Choose Life” plates in 2011 but rejected those that read “Trust Women” and “Respect Choice.” A three-judge panel at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia decided that this preference was “at odds with the First Amendment.”
The case is one of a few that addresses whether license plates are state-controlled government speech, or Constitution-protected individual speech. In this and a similar case involving a South Carolina “Choose Life” plate, the appeals court found that license plates veer farther into individual speech territory.
"Specialty plates are closely associated with the drivers who select and pay for them," said appeals court Judge James A. Wynn, a North Carolina native. "And the driver, on whose car the special message constantly appears for all those who share the road to see, is the ultimate communicator."
Wynn added that the state cannot be allowed to “privilege speech on one side of the hotly debated issue – reproductive choice – while silencing opposing voices.”
The plate was one of 80 approved by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2011. It would cost $25, $15 of which would go to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, which provides abortion alternatives. The state has been barred from manufacturing the plates during the suit.
The American Civil Liberties Union brought the issue to the fore, urging the appeals court to reject the plates and maintaining that they would take the same stand if there were a plate provided only for supporters of abortion rights.
“Today's ruling protects the right of North Carolinians of all political beliefs to have equal access to avenues for free speech," North Carolina ACLU attorney Chris Brook said in a written statement.
The state of North Carolina could decide to appeal the decision in a full appeals court or the U.S Supreme Court.