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'Choose Life' License Plates Blocked in N.C.

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on December 11, 2012 9:52 AM

North Carolina's plan to offer "Choose Life" license plates to state residents has been blocked by a federal court.

State legislators approved the pro-life design in June 2011, but rejected specialty plates that would have proclaimed pro-choice slogans such as "Respect Choice." Before the plates could be issued, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit.

On Monday, Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Fox issued a permanent injunction against the "Choose Life" plates. The problem, he said, was freedom of speech.

North Carolina's "Choose Life" license plates offered one opinion on the controversial topic of abortion. But there was no alternative message available, reports Reuters.

Judge Fox ruled that by not having a pro-choice option alongside the "Choose Life" design, the state was denying its citizens' rights to free speech. The political issue required that both sides be given equal opportunity to express their views.

By not allowing citizens to express multiple views, the state would effectively be silencing all but one group. That's something the government is not permitted to do.

Freedom of speech says that the government can't limit speech based on message. In general, restrictions can only be based on the time, place, and manner of speech.

The state could have rejected pro-choice messages on license plates if they incited violence or used derogatory language. But that wasn't the case here. Additionally, once the state accepted a pro-life message for its plates, they also needed to have a pro-choice one.

Nothing compels the state to offer forums for political speech under the First Amendment. But once such forums, like vanity license plates, are offered, the government can't reject speech based on message.

If the state does eventually choose to offer both pro-choice and "Choose Life" license plates, the legal issue may resurface. Until then, North Carolina residents will have to choose a less politically charged message for their license plates.

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