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November 11, 2014

Somehow, even the most mundane topics, like license plates, come alive when the government gets involved.  Throughout America, states offer specialized license plates bearing any number of pointed messages.  In Arizona, you can express your sense of “transplantation awareness;” your commitment to animals; or your eco-consciousness.  Similar schemes nationwide are leaving federal courts in a constitutional quagmire:  Should state governments decide which viewpoints can be expressed on license plates?

Take Tennessee.  The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals just upheld its controversial license plate system.  Tennessee’s program only permitted citizens to purchase “Choose Life” inscriptions.  This opinion conflicts with a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion which decided that South Carolina’s lone offering of “Choose Life” license plates was unconstitutional.

The Sixth Circuit viewed the license plates as “government speech,” thus invoking no First Amendment issues whatsoever. Others, like Judge Luttig of the Fourth Circuit, consider specialty license plates private and government speech combined into one.

In 2005, the Arizona Life Coalition challenged Arizona’s refusal to allow “Choose Life” plates here in Arizona.  The District federal judge favored the government speech argument and ruled that no First Amendment violation had occurred.

When it comes to free speech, it is better to err on the safe side, away from government interference. The Government should get out of the state-sponsorship of select viewpoints entirely and leave that to the bumper sticker industry and individual citizens.

Key Links:

Arizona Department of Transportation: Special License Plates
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals: American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee v. Bredesen
Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals: Planned Parenthood of South Carolina, Inc. v. Rose



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