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Published On: Fri, May 22nd, 2015

Court rules to allow New York ban on ‘Choose Life’ license plates

The New York Department of Motor Vehicles landed a victory over the pro-life, pro-adoption crowd as a court ruled that the state could ban the “Choose Life” license plates.

The DMV previously interpreted them as “patently offensive” and of the “politically sensitive and emotionally charged issues,” “regardless of the particular viewpoint espoused” – this led to the First Amendment case: Children First Foundation, Inc. v. Fiala, which was decided by a 2-to-1 vote.

The agency said that signing off on the plates with the message as part of its “Take Your Pride for a Ride” plate program “would readily be perceived as governmental support for one side of a controversy that has existed in this country for several decades” and the “concern is that a plate advocating politically sensitive and emotionally charged issues” may lead to incidents of road rage.

Children First said the DMV was suppressing its right to free speech, and filed suit against the DMV in 2004.

All the judges agreed that the specialty license plate program, in which the DMV allowed groups to sponsor plates supporting their organizations or causes, created a so-called “nonpublic forum” for the groups’ and drivers’ own speech (rather than being government speech).

In such a “nonpublic forum,” the government may select which speech is allowed, so long as the restriction is reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, and doesn’t vest excessive discretion in government officials, since such excessive discretion would lend itself to forbidden viewpoint discrimination.

“Pro-adoption organizations should have the same speech rights as any other organization. While the district court affirmed this basic freedom, the circuit court denied free speech in favor of government censorship,” said Jeremy Tedecsco, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel.

“The state doesn’t have the authority to target The Children First Foundation specialty plates for censorship based on its life-affirming viewpoint. The state has wrongly gotten away with speech discrimination against our client for more than 10 years. We will review our legal options.”

The DMV allowed a “Union Yes” plate and one that says “Support Police,” while excluding “Choose Life.”

A federal court judge sided with the non-profit in 2011, finding the DMV’s rejection of the plate was unconstitutional.

Choose Life North Carolina license plateIn a ruling Friday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, finding license plates are government property and the agency had the right to reject the message.

It found the agency had been even handed, noting the agency had once rejected a vanity plate that said RU486 — a reference to the so-called “morning after pill” — “in order to avoid the appearance of government endorsement of a pro-choice stance in the abortion debate.”

As for the “Cop Shot” plates, “the issue of bringing to justice individuals who have attacked police officers cannot reasonably compare — either by its very nature or by the level of contentiousness that surrounds it — to the issue of abortion,” the judges ruled.

photo Pearson Scott Foresman

photo Pearson Scott Foresman

The ruling also noted that Children First had other alternatives.

People “may display a ‘Choose Life’ bumper sticker — or even cover every available square inch of their vehicle with such stickers. That message will resonate just as loudly as if vehicle displayed a ‘Choose Life’ license plate. It will merely do so without the perception of State endorsement,” two judges wrote in a majority opinion.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston dissented, saying the commissioner’s determinations that “a proposed custom plate depicting a sun and two smiling children, and bearing the words, ‘Choose Life’ to be ‘patently offensive’” is “surprising” and should be overturned.

 

Children First said 28 states have allowed “Choose Life” custom plates, including New Jersey and Connecticut.

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About the Author

- Roxanne "Butter" Bracco began with the Dispatch as Pittsburgh Correspondent, but will be providing reports and insights from Washington DC, Maryland and the surrounding region. Contact Roxie aka "Butter" at [email protected] ATTN: Roxie or Butter Bracco

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