"Choose life" license plates speeding to court

Should the DMV get to ban certain political slogans?

Published April 28, 2009 12:00AM (EDT)

Until today, I've had exactly one thought about people with the kind of specialty license plates that instruct you in illegible script to save the whales or neuter your cat: You're gonna get a car in your bumper while someone tries to decipher your pet cause. Now, though, the plates have caused a legal fender bender between the state of Illinois and a local anti-abortion group.

For an extra fee, the state issues plates representing and benefiting numerous organizations and causes -- everything from remembering fallen soldiers to encouraging mammograms -- but it has denied Choose Life Illinois' petition for its own moving billboard. Predictably enough, the group's desired slogan is "Choose Life" (which kinda takes on a double meaning, given the message's medium). It's the kind of rallying cry you might expect on a bumper sticker, but should it appear on a state-issued license plate? Well, the group certainly thought so and challenged the state, but Chicago's federal appeals court disagreed. Now, Choose Life is asking the Supreme Court to intervene.

The first case to test the First Amendment's sway over license plates came in 1977, when the Supreme Court ruled that New Hampshire drivers couldn't be forced to display the state motto of “Live Free or Die” on their cars, according to the New York Times. (The plaintiff argued that he would choose life, “even if it meant living in bondage.”) In this case, though, the state isn't forcing a politicized phrase on drivers; it's limiting the ways the government will pimp their rides. The high court decision will likely hinge on whether or not specialty license plates represent government or private speech.

It's a tricky question: Specialty plates are issued by the government, but their particular messages are chosen by an individual. You could argue that the state is simply providing a venue for individual speech; after all, the government is only responding to the public's desire to express a certain sentiment, whether it's pride for their alma mater or concern about domestic violence. On the other hand, the state is engaging in its own form of expression simply by vetting slogans.

I'm inclined to argue that if the government is going to offer specialty plates, it should accommodate all (legal) expression. Which is to say: Why open this can of worms? It seems to me that the state shouldn't be in the business of politically charged auto adornments.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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