Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Here We Go

Prompted by this article (excerpted here):

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee's embattled anti-abortion license plates could hit the streets within three months.The U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to consider an appeal challenging such plates.

  • Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


As well as a vague memory of a great 88.5 report on the Florida license plates sporting the same slogan, I looked up a little more about the issue. Here's a great article from Slate, titled Poetic Licenses:


"The legal issue isn't complicated, and it helps to separate it from your feelings about abortion. It's a free speech question: Can state governments endorse speech representing only one side of an issue as controversial as abortion? Has the state, by opening up license plates as a forum for private speech, incurred a constitutional obligation to allow speakers of every viewpoint equal access to that forum?"

"Most of the courts that have considered the issue have wussed out on the First Amendment question altogether, finding the plaintiffs in those cases lacked legal "standing" to file suit, since they had never endeavored to sponsor "Choose Abortion" or "Choose Choice" license plates themselves. Another court decided last month that the "Choose Life" plates in South Carolina were unconstitutional, in that the state was promoting only one side in the debate. Immediately, a South Carolina legislator introduced a "Choose Death" license plate, which he insists fairly expresses the other side in the debate. Newspapers recently noted that the "Choose Death" plate may still prove popular with death-penalty enthusiasts (and perhaps with hunters, werewolves, and NRA members as well). Less clear is whether it will satisfy the plaintiffs from Planned Parenthood.
License plates became a constitutional issue in 1977 when the Supreme Court decided
Wooley v. Maynard, a case involving a family of Jehovah's Witnesses who had taped over the "Live Free or Die" part of their New Hampshire license plate. The Maynards claimed that New Hampshire violated their free speech rights by forcing them to broadcast a political sentiment with which they disagreed. The high court ruled that states could not force individuals to be "mobile billboards" for messages they loathed. The "Choose Life" cases don't involve this sort of compelled speech, however, since no one in any state is forced to purchase the specialty plates—people buy them voluntarily.
Specialty plates were virtually unheard-of in most states until 1987, when Florida issued a plate commemorating the space shuttle Challenger. That plate alone raised more than $30 million for space-related programs, and today Florida issues more than 50 specialty plates. Forty other states have specialty-plate programs, and for the most part they celebrate non-controversial organizations: sports teams, schools, veterans, NASCAR, or saving the whales, with the additional fees benefiting that cause. The "Choose Life" plates in Florida feature the words "Choose Life" in childlike crayon, along with a beaming boy and girl—presumably of the happily adopted variety—also rendered in the key of crayon. Most of states with "Choose Life" programs provide, as does Florida, that the proceeds of these sales go exclusively to organizations that counsel women with unwanted pregnancies to choose adoption. In fact, the legislation in most states expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.
When the first "Choose Life" legislation passed in Florida in 1998, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it, stating that license plates were not necessarily the best forum for exploring the complex nuances of the abortion debate. But Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill when he was elected in 1999, and the Louisiana legislature adopted similar legislation shortly thereafter. South Carolina followed in 2001. All have resulted in lawsuits, with the first two states' suits going to the Choose Lifers and the third going to the plaintiffs. So far. "

"It's not at all clear how the "Choose Life" lawsuits will shake out. But it seems obvious that if a "Choose Life" tag is constitutional in Virginia, a "Honk If You Love al-Qaida" plate should be constitutional in New Hampshire, as well. Which would probably give a whole new meaning to "Live Free or Die.""


Leave it to Florida to start this slippery trend. Just thought it was worth some time on the page. Though this article was written in 2003, we still haven't resolved the issue. Check out the rest of the article here:

No comments: