A federal appeals court has reversed its earlier ruling and says North Carolina can offer a “Choose Life” license plate for abortion opponents without offering a plate with an opposing message.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the “Choose Life” case back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals with instructions to reconsider it in light of a ruling in a Texas case.
In a 2-1 ruling Thursday, the appeals court reversed its earlier ruling that said it was unconstitutional for the state to issue “Choose Life” plates and reject an abortion rights plate.
“We now conclude that specialty license plates issued under North Carolina’s program amount to government speech and that North Carolina is therefore free to reject license plate designs that convey messages with which it disagrees,” Chief Judge William Traxler wrote.
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The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina criticized the ruling.
“It’s very disappointing that North Carolina can now deny drivers on one side of this contentious issue an equal ability to express their views,” ACLU executive director Sarah Preston said in a news release. “Regardless of the court’s ruling, the General Assembly should finally do the right thing and allow citizens on both sides of this controversial issue to purchase specialty license plates supporting their views.”
The case stems from a 2011 state law that allowed the production of a “Choose Life” license plate but refused to offer alternatives with messages supported by abortion-rights advocates.
Six amendments were proposed in the legislature to authorize an additional new plate that stated either “Trust Women. Respect Choice” or simply “Respect Choice.” The legislature rejected all six.
As the dissenter in the decision, U.S. Fourth Circuit Judge James A. Wynn stated his objections to the majority decision. Wynn said the Texas case did not address, nor overrule, the 4th Circuit’s recognition that speech can have elements of both government and private speech.
“Insisting otherwise is tantamount to ‘insisting that a mule must be either a horse or a donkey,’” Wynn said in his dissent. “I refuse to believe ... that the Supreme Court meant to force us to choose that the mule in this case is either a horse or a donkey.”
Wynn contended that North Carolina’s authorization of a “Choose Life” plate and rejection of a “Respect Choice” plate is “viewpoint discrimination.”
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.