A unanimous panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the state could not offer a “Choose Life” license plate without also offering an alternative plate with a message supporting reproductive freedom.
The key question before the court in ACLU-NC v. Tata was whether the message conveyed on the license plate constitutes government or private speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that regulation of private speech — here, drivers expressing a pro-life view by purchasing and displaying the license plate — is subject to scrutiny under the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. But government speech — lawmakers advocating a state pro-life position through the plates – is not.
In the court below, U.S. District Judge James C. Fox found that the Choose Life plates were not a form of protected government speech but rather “were part of a larger program encouraging private speech by North Carolina drivers” and ruled that the state’s one-sided license plate scheme constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
The Fourth Circuit agreed.
“Today’s ruling protects the right of North Carolinians of all political beliefs to have equal access to avenues for free speech,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, who argued the case in front of the Fourth Circuit. “As the court reiterated today, the government cannot create an avenue of expression for one side of a contentious political issue while denying an equal opportunity to citizens with the opposite view. North Carolina’s one-sided license plate scheme constituted blatant viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. We would have made the exact same argument if the situation was reversed, and the state planned on issuing a pro-choice plate while not offering one expressing the opposite point of view.”
Read the full Fourth Circuit opinion here.