North Carolina 'Choose Life' Plates Don't Violate First Amendment

The North Carolina license plates don't violate the First Amendment.

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Division of Motor Vehicles employees Sherri Groce, top, and Connie Byrd, seated, sort out a collection of vanity license plates at the DMV office in Raleigh Friday Sept. 22, 2000. There are about 185,000 personalized plates on the road in North Carolina, a number that has remained about the same for years. The tags cost $20 a year, in addition to the $20 annual tag charge. The agency checks vanity plate applications in an effort to make sure obscenity doesn't make it onto personalized plates and the state's roads.

A Reagan-appointed judge in North Carolina has ruled that the state's "Choose Life" license plates are unconstitutional and has issued a permanent injunction preventing them from being issued to motorists.

Judge James C. Fox, whom President Reagan named to the bench in 1982 and who took senior status in 2001, found in a lawsuit brought by the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties union that the issuance of the plates in the absence of the availability of similar plates promoting a pro-abortion rights message constituted "viewpoint discrimination" under the First Amendment.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Civil libertarians are hailing the decision as are abortion-rights groups, who see the "Choose Life" plates as government-sponsored advocacy of a particular position with which they disagree. They have a point but, in the words of the great philosopher, "So what?" No one is compelled to put that particular plate on their automobile and, in North Carolina as in other states, sufficient demand for such plates—which are made available at a premium price—must be demonstrated prior to their being issued.

The plates do not constitute the endorsement or establishment of a particular religion—there are plenty of atheists who a pro-life—and so it's hard to see how their being issued in the absence of a similar plate that could be purchased by abortion-rights supporters constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

The state is not obliged to promote both sides of every issue. The "Choose Life" plates were produced through the democratic process, by action of the state legislature. By tossing them out the federal courts are engaged in a form of judicial tyranny by forcing equality of viewpoints where none is required.

The whole thing evolves, of course, out of the government's pursuit of money. Specialty plates like the "Choose Life" plates are made available at extra cost, meaning they are revenue generators for the state, a kind of voluntary taxation. The more popular they are, the more money that comes in to state coffers. Their purpose is not the promotion of a particular idea; it's to make money for the state.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Of course there are those, on the right as well as on the left, who regard the promotion of any idea by the state for whatever reason as a potential violation of someone's First Amendment rights. This is why The Ten Commandments have been removed from courthouses, crosses are being challenged at war memorials, and some people object to the content of state sex education courses because of the way they treat controversial issues like abortion and homosexuality. It seems odd, however, that it is only those positions embraced by the left that seem to pass constitutional muster as though only liberal positions are inherently neutral. With conservative positions, some kind of balance seems always required.

Who, exactly, is harmed by the fact that North Carolina wants to issue "Choose Life" plates but not "Respect a Woman's Right to Choose" plates? Aside from the fact that the "Choose Life" plates slogan seems to have a broader, nonpolitical application, it seems to hard to argue that anyone suffers economic harm because they are issued or that anyone's political liberties are threatened. While Judge Fox seems to have a lot of case law on his side, it does not make him right.

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