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N.C. Opinions: Wilmington

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The flaw of pro-life plates

From an editorial in Wednesday’s (Wilmington) Star News:

License plates are not bumper stickers. But if the state is going to allow them to be used as such, it cannot permit political speech for select groups while denying it to others. That is the gist of a federal judge’s ruling that the state violated the First Amendment by establishing a “Choose Life” specialty plate benefiting pro-life causes while rejecting a similar request from pro-choice advocates.

U.S. District Judge Jim Fox’s decision is right. By its action, the N.C. General Assembly sanctioned one point of view on a controversial political issue while denying the other side an equal forum. “This court concludes … that the state’s offering of a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment,” wrote Fox, a Reagan appointee.

Precedent is on his side: The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar federal court decision in South Carolina in 2004. A different appellate court upheld Louisiana’s Choose Life plates; the Supreme Court refused to hear either case.

Since the Fourth Circuit ruling, South Carolina has approved a law allowing any nonprofit group to apply for a specialty plate if it gets the required number of prepaid orders. That’s one way to solve the problem.

Really, though, is a state-issued license plate the place to engage in such highly charged debate?

An Elon University law professor who advised parties defending the state law suggested that Fox’s ruling would open the door to demands for a “Kill the Sea Turtles” plate to counter the save-the-turtles message. In one way, he made the opposition’s point:

When the state provides an official venue for free speech, it cannot pick and choose which free speech it will support.

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