Fourth Circuit Strikes N.C. "Choose Life" Plates

By: Brittany Farrell
February 12, 2014

A federal appeals court has ruled that North Carolina cannot offer a license plate bearing the pro-life message, "Choose Life," because the state does not also offer an alternative license plate with a pro-abortion message. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued the unanimous opinion on February 11, saying North Carolina's "Choose Life" license plates represent "blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment." This decision follows a similar ruling by a lower court.

The Fourth Circuit's conclusion contradicts a 2006 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in an almost identical case. In its decision, the Sixth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of Tennessee's Choose Life plates, despite the fact that the state does not offer an alternative pro-abortion plate.

"Choose Life license plates are currently legal in 29 states, including every state in the Southeast," said John L. Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. "The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 upheld the constitutionality of Tennessee's Choose Life license plates in a remarkably similar lawsuit, and we encourage the State of North Carolina to continue its defense of this important law."

Pro-life drivers in North Carolina started applying for the "Choose Life" plate soon after the General Assembly approved it in 2011, along with about 70 other specialty plates. After nearly a decade of efforts to gain legislative approval, the "Choose Life" plate was added to the list of nearly 150 specialty license plates available to North Carolina drivers. The money generated by the sale of the "Choose Life" license plates would be earmarked for the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship. According to the authorizing legislation, these funds shall be distributed annually, "to nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies that provide pregnancy services that are limited to counseling and/or meeting the physical needs of pregnant women...and shall not be distributed to any agency, organization, business, or other entity that provides, promotes, counsels, or refers for abortion...."

Almost immediately after the "Choose Life" plates were approved, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation turned to the courts in an effort to stop the issuance of the plates. In December 2012, U.S. District Court Judge James Fox ruled that only allowing the "Choose Life" license plate represents unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. North Carolina appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit.

Judge James Wynn wrote the February 11 opinion, in which Chief Judge William B. Traxler and U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III of Maryland joined. The judges ruled that by issuing the "Choose Life" license plate, North Carolina seeks to "privilege speech on one side of a hotly debated issue-reproductive choice-while silencing opposing voices." The three-judge panel concluded that, "Because the specialty plate speech at issue implicates private speech rights and is not pure government speech, North Carolina's authorizing a 'Choose Life' plate while refusing to authorize a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."

As recently as 2008 and 2009, federal appeals courts have ordered and upheld the issuance of "Choose Life" plates in Arizona and Missouri. Additionally, lawsuits seeking to overturn the specialty license plates in Florida and Tennessee have ultimately failed. In 2004, the Fourth Circuit held that a similar law authorizing "Choose Life" license plates in South Carolina was unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, because the legislature authorized only one viewpoint. Since that time, the South Carolina General Assembly has addressed the concerns of the court, and Choose Life plates are now legal in the Palmetto State.

If the State decides to proceed further, it may seek to have the decision reviewed by an "en banc" hearing of the full Fourth Circuit Court or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

Related Resources:

Choose Life Hearing Approaches- October 28, 2013
Choose Life Plate Appealed- January 8, 2013
Choose Life Plate Ruled Unconstitutional - December 11, 2012
Judge Halts License Plates - November 30, 2011
Choose Life Plate Wins in NY - November 15, 2011
ACLU Files "Choose Life" Lawsuit - September 9, 2011
Pro-Family Bills Become Law - July 1, 2011
Standing for Life as Session Ends - June 18, 2011
Choose Life Plates to Get House Vote - June 3, 2011
"Choose Life" Bill Introduced- February 17, 2011
Choose Life Month - January 10, 2011
Choose Life NC License Plates - Interview - January 29, 2011 Download (mp3)(wma)
Choose Life Not Chosen Again - June 18, 2010
Choose Life Lawsuit Possible - May 27, 2010
Choose Life Plate Gets Billboard Boost - October 20, 2009
Unequal Treatment - FNC - July/August 2009

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