Are 'Kill the sea turtles plates' coming? Court hears speech case on plates
RICHMOND, Va. — North Carolina owns the license plates it issues to motorists and has the right to use them to convey its preferred anti-abortion message, an assistant state attorney general told a federal appeals court Wednesday.
Kathryne Hathcock urged a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond to overturn a judge's ruling last December that offering only the "Choose Life" license plate violates the First Amendment. Lawmakers approved the plates in 2011 and rejected several proposals to also offer plates with the messages "Trust Women" and "Respect Choice."
North Carolina appealed U.S. District Judge James Fox's ruling that the anti-abortion plate is unconstitutional, and the state is prohibited from manufacturing the plates while the case is pending.
Hathcock argued that the license plate amounts to government speech, while ACLU attorney Christopher Brook insisted that the state created a public forum and must allow people on both sides of a hotly debated political issue have their say.
"It is textbook viewpoint discrimination, and it goes to the heart of what the First Amendment is trying to protect," Brook said.
Hathcock said the viewpoint at issue is the state's, not residents who display the "Choose Life" plates because they agree with the message.
"This is about North Carolina's right to speak for itself," she said.
Appeals court Judge James A. Wynn, who is from North Carolina, seemed skeptical of Hathcock's argument.
"What you are doing is suppressing speech," he told Hathcock. "It's troubling."
Hathcock wondered aloud how far the state would be required to go if compelled to offer an opposing viewpoint for every specialty plate.
"Will we have 'Kill the sea turtles' plates?" she said.
The appeals court typically takes several weeks to rule.
Florida-based Choose Life Inc. has been lobbying for creation of the plates across the country. Twenty-nine states and the District Columbia offer the plates, the organization says, and efforts are underway in several other states.
In North Carolina, the "Choose Life" plate was one of 80 specialty tags approved by the General Assembly in 2011. Each "Choose Life" plate would cost $25, with $15 of that going to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, an association of nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers.