A federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments today on whether North Carolina can offer license plates with an anti-abortion message without making an alternative available to supporters of abortion rights.
The deliberations, set for the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the Fourth District in Richmond, Va., center around the question: Does a license plate represent the speech of the state or of the driver carrying it on a vehicle?
The case stems from the General Assembly’s approving in 2011 a “Choose Life” license plate, along with 79 other specialty plates, after turning down six proposals to also offer one with a message such as “Trust Women. Respect Choice.”
The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state that year, claiming a message on only one side of an issue violated individuals’ freedom of speech. U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox ordered a temporary halt to the production of “Choose Life” plates and in December 2012 ruled the absence of a pro-choice plate constituted viewpoint discrimination. The state appealed.
Chris Brook, who is set to represent the ACLU in Wednesday’s hearing, says the legislature’s decision allowed for only one side of a political controversy to be heard.
“All North Carolinians, regardless of their ideological leanings, should be uncomfortable with the government having that sort of power over private speech,” Brook said.
But Steven Kitschen of the National Legal Foundation, which filed a brief with the court in support of the state, says the legislature chose one message over another and speaks on behalf of the state.
“In our view, the license plates are government speech, and it’s important to remember that governments can speak on one side of the issue,” Kitschen said.
The Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, an association of nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers, would get $15 from each plate sold. Similar plates are available in 29 other states, according to the Associated Press.
The office of the State Attorney General declined to comment on the case because it is pending. State reps. Tim Moore and Pat McElraft, primary sponsors of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.