Tennessee Court Blocks Anti-Choice License Plate; ACLU and Planned Parenthood Say Decision Protects Free Speech

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
September 24, 2004 12:00 am

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NASHVILLE — The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood today hailed a Tennessee court for blocking an anti-abortion-rights specialty license plate because it discriminates against opposing viewpoints.

“When the state of Tennessee authorized a ‘Choose-Life’ license plate and rejected similar attempts to introduce a ‘Pro-Choice’ plate, it cut off public debate,” said Julie Sternberg, a lawyer with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project who argued the case before the court earlier this week. “We are pleased that the court leveled the playing field by ensuring that the state could not advance one point of view while discouraging another.”

The law in question makes a “Choose Life” license plate available to motorists for an annual fee of $35 over and above the basic costs of registering a car in the state. Fifty percent of all funds raised, after expenses, go to a private anti-choice organization called New Life Resources.

The legislature twice rejected an amendment that would have authorized a “Pro Choice” specialty plate.

“Tennessee cannot put its power and resources behind one group of taxpayers’ private speech while discriminating against another group’s,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Today’s decision is a clear victory for free speech in the state.”

In his ruling, Judge Campbell of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division, wrote, “Because the State has established a license plate forum for the abortion debate, it cannot limit the viewpoints expressed in that forum.”

The lawsuit challenged not only the statute authorizing the “Choose Life” plates but also the legislature’s general policy and practice of approving specialty license plates. The ACLU argued that the current policy allows the General Assembly to discriminate against those with viewpoints it does not condone. The court, however, did not rule on the issue of Tennessee’s license plate program in general.

Plaintiffs in the case include the ACLU of Tennessee, Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, Inc., and three individuals. Lawyers on the case include Sternberg and Caroline Mala Corbin, and Carrie Flaxman of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project; Roger Evans and Donna Lee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; George E. Barrett and Edmund L. Carey Jr. of Barrett, Johnston, & Parsley; and Susan L. Kay, the ACLU of Tennessee Legal Committee Chair.

The case, ACLU of Tennessee v. Bredesen, #03-1046.

The ACLU brief is available at: /ReproductiveRights/ReproductiveRights.cfm?ID=16522&c=30.

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