Federal Appeals Court Rules North Carolina’s One-Sided License Plate Scheme Unconstitutional

February 11, 2014 12:00 am

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Unanimous Decision by 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of ACLU-NC, Says the State’s Plan to Offer "Choose Life" License Plate without an Alternative Pro-Choice Option is Unconstitutional

February 11, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today ruled that a 2011 North Carolina law that would have allowed the production of a "Choose Life" license plate, but not an alternative plate with a message supporting reproductive freedom, is unconstitutional.

"Issuing a 'Choose Life' specialty license plate while refusing to issue a pro-choice specialty license plate constitutes blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment," the court ruled in a unanimous 3-0 opinion.

"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."

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed the original lawsuit in 2011 on behalf of North Carolinians seeking a specialty license plate that supports a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, argued the state’s plan violated the First Amendment by creating an avenue for private speech but opening it to only one side of a contentious issue.

U.S. District Judge James C. Fox ruled in December 2012 that the one-sided license plate scheme was unconstitutional, writing that "the State’s offering of a Choose Life license plate in the absence of a pro-choice plate constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."

During the 2011 legislative session, the North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 289, which authorized the issuance of a "Choose Life" license plate. However, the legislature repeatedly refused to authorize a plate that supported the countervailing position in favor of reproductive freedom. Six amendments were proposed in the legislature to authorize an additional new plate that stated either, "Trust Women. Respect Choice." or simply "Respect Choice." The legislature rejected all six amendments.

Judge Fox granted a preliminary injunction in November 2011 that temporarily blocked production of the "Choose Life" plate; that injunction was made permanent after Judge Fox’s Dec. 7, 2012, ruling.

Read the Fourth Circuit’s ruling at acluofnc.org.

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