State to appeal judge's 'Choose Life' license plate ruling

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 4, 2013 

— The state plans to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that North Carolina cannot offer a proposed “Choose Life” license plate without also having an abortion-rights plate.

The state attorney general, acting on behalf of the Republican-led legislature, announced plans Friday to appeal the December ruling by U.S. District Judge James Fox, a Reagan appointee who lives in Wilmington.

The appeal was not available Friday, and it is unclear what the state’s arguments will be.

Fox’s ruling was hailed by free-speech proponents and assailed by pro-life advocates in the abortion debate. The judge said that, by offering only a “Choose Life” plate, the General Assembly would be sanctioning one point of view on a contentious political issue while denying the other side an equal forum. That, Fox ruled, “constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.”

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar federal court decision in South Carolina in 2004.

Since that 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.

“It’s unfortunate that the state has chosen to prolong what is really a very clear-cut First Amendment issue,” Chris Brook, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “This case is ultimately about the right of North Carolinians of all political beliefs to have equal access to avenues for the free expression of ideas, and we look forward to making our arguments before the Court of Appeals.”

After the legislature approved the “Choose Life” plate in 2011, some members proposed amendments to authorize additional plates with such messages as “Trust Women. Respect Choice” or “Respect Choice.” The legislature rejected those amendments.

The state argued in its case before Fox that the “Choose Life” plate was protected government speech and therefore constitutional.

Fox described that argument as a “stretch” given that the state advertised the specialty plate program as a chance for North Carolina drivers “to show off [their] special interests.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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