Skip to content

License plate brouhaha is about ideology

August 15, 2002

Florida has sold more than 40,000 license plates carrying the tag line “Choose Life.” Five other states have decided to offer them, too. Others were planning to, until they got bogged down in lawsuits brought by the major pro-abortion groups, chiefly the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.These groups argue that states offering these plates are violating the First Amendment by engaging in viewpoint discrimination — allowing an anti-abortion message but not a countermessage from the abortion rights side. They also argue that the plates are a church-state violation, because the words “choose life” are found in English translations of the Bible.The church-state argument is about as unserious as legal arguments get. “Choose Life” must be banned because the two words are found in an English translation of Deuteronomy? If so, the license plate message “Don’t Kill Anyone” would have to be banned as one translation of “thou shalt not kill.” Plates saying “No Capital Punishment” could be removed as sectarian, too, since the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty and is loudly pushing that message.

Besides, the assumption that opposition to abortion must be religiously based is wildly erroneous. Anyone who thinks this should check the anti-abortion writings of two of our best known atheist journalists, Christopher Hitchens and Nat Hentoff.

The viewpoint discrimination argument is more serious. The government would be guilty of viewpoint discrimination if there is demand for pro-abortion plates and states refused to meet that demand. But as plaintiff lawyers will tell you, the abortion groups do not want their own plates. (What would they say, “Choose Death” or “Stop That Fetus”?) They want the other side’s plates to disappear. This is an argument for censorship decked out in the language of free speech.

A sounder argument against these plates would be a comprehensive one: that the state has no business featuring slogans and viewpoints of any kind on its plates. No commercials for sports teams, professions or the Sons of Confederate Veterans. No advice to ski in Utah or to live free or die. No plates celebrating the AFL-CIO or NRA (both available in Virginia). No political guidance on environmental concerns or abortion.

To make the comprehensive argument, you have to argue that license plates are a form of state speech that must avoid social commentary and commercials for various civic groups. That’s a clear position, and I’m for it. The problem is that for years now, governments have been clearly acting as if license plates are sites for private speech. Vanity plates let any car owner carry almost any message, from “atheist,” which Florida authorities tried to ban, to plates featuring the word “Redskins,” which California revoked as racist after a former Washington Redskins player had used it for seven years.

In Florida, which is apparently the world capital of license plate controversies, one motorist raised a fuss by adding the vanity message “EAT UMM” to his “Save the Manatee” specialty plate. Also in Florida, an Italian-American couple had their “2DAGOES” plate revoked by the state. All these are examples of viewpoint discrimination that the Supreme Court would strike down. The First Amendment does not allow the state to decide which messages it will permit. That’s why the Ku Klux Klan could not be barred from the “Adopt a Highway” litter control program.

Abortion supporters are spending a great deal of time and money to erase a simple two-word message that harms nobody. The message does nothing to impede or impugn any abortion decision. It accepts the abortion-rights language of “choice” and just recommends one of the two options that can be chosen. How is this harmful?

Barry Silver, an attorney representing NOW and other plaintiffs in a legal challenge to the Florida plate, is sure the plate will cause dreadful harm. In fact, he compares the words “choose life” to the Nazi salute, “Sieg Heil.” Both phrases, he told me, “may sound benign but are really dangerous. The state shouldn’t promote murder. The ‘Choose Life’ plate is a license to kill, a rallying cry to intimidate and kill.”

Thanks for sharing, Barry. He said his clients aren’t interested in producing their own license plates; they just want to stop production of “Choose Life” plates.

I think we get the point. After all its effort to delegitimize resistance to abortion, NOW and its allies are deeply offended that choosing life is presented as a respectable option. This isn’t about defending the First Amendment. It’s about defending abortion ideology.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: