Federal Court Puts an End to North Carolina’s Anti-Abortion License Plates

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A federal appeals court has squashed North Carolina’s controversial license-plate law that allowed only anti-abortion messages.


The 2011 legislation permitted residents to obtain license plates that read: “Choose Life.”


But the same law denied pro-choice advocates the opportunity to have competing slogans on their license plates, like “Respect Women” or “Respect Choice.”


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of four residents to stop the legislation from going into effect, arguing it violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.


U.S. District Judge James Fox sided with the ACLU and granted permanent injunction against the law.


The state petitioned the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel ruled unanimously that Fox was correct in striking down the statute.


Judge James Wynn wrote (pdf) for the circuit court that the legislature’s action constituted “blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment.”


He also noted that the state never denied that it was engaging in discrimination by allowing only “Choose Life” plates.


“Instead, North Carolina contends that it was free to discriminate based on viewpoint because the license plate speech at issue was solely its own,” Wynn wrote. “And under the government speech doctrine, when the government speaks for itself, it can say what it wishes. Plaintiffs disagree, arguing that the license plate speech at issue implicates private speech and all its attendant First Amendment protections, including the prohibition on viewpoint discrimination.”


The decision cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United (pdf) ruling, which affirmed that the First Amendment prohibits the government from abridging freedom of speech.


“Chief amongst the evils the First Amendment prohibits are government ‘restrictions distinguishing among different speakers, allowing speech by some but not others,’” Wynn wrote. “In this case, North Carolina seeks to do just that: privilege speech on one side of the hotly debated issue—reproductive choice—while silencing opposing voices.”


South Carolina adopted a similar anti-abortion license-plate law in 2004 that also was thrown out by the Fourth Circuit.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Anti-Abortion License Plates in N.C. Tossed (by Dan McCue, Courthouse News Service)

American Civil Liberties Union v. Anthony Tata (Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

Federal Judge Halts North Carolina Law Requiring Abortion Doctors to Show Ultrasound 4 Hours before Procedure (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Judge Rules North Carolina License Plates Unconstitutional (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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