North Carolina Appeals Judge’s “Choose Life” License Plate Ruling

January 7, 2013

Judge Had Ruled that N.C. Can’t Offer a “Choose Life” License Plate without Offering an Alternative Plate Supporting Reproductive Choice; ACLU-NC Says It’s “Unfortunate” State Has Decided to Prolong a Clear First Amendment Issue

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RALEIGH – Today the state of North Carolina announced that it would appeal a December ruling from a U.S. District Court that found the state’s plan to offer state drivers a “Choose Life” license plate but not an alternative plate with a pro-choice message was unconstitutional. The state gave notice today that it will officially appeal that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, VA.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) originally filed a lawsuit against the state’s one-sided license plate scheme in September 2011. In a Dec. 7, 2012, ruling, Judge James C. Fox concluded, “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.”

"It's unfortunate that the state has chosen to prolong what is really a very clear-cut First Amendment issue,” said Chris Brook, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director. “The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has consistently ruled that anytime the government creates an avenue for private speech, it cannot restrict that avenue to only one side of a contentious debate. 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."

The ACLU-NCLF filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina in September 2011 on behalf of North Carolinians seeking a specialty license plate that supports a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. 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 ruling.

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.

The ACLU of North Carolina is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the guarantees of individual liberty found in the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and related federal and state civil rights laws. With about 12,000 members and supporters throughout the state and an office located in Raleigh, the organization achieves its mission through advocacy, public education, community outreach, and when necessary, litigation.

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