WASHINGTON – On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that had allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to censor North Carolina’s “Choose Life” message, which the state legislature voted to make available on a specialty license plate. The Supreme Court vacated the decision and ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to reconsider the case in light of the high court’s June 18 decision in another license plate case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans.
In February, the 4th Circuit upheld a district court decision that prohibited the state from issuing “Choose Life” plates unless it also issued a pro-abortion plate. That prompted Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys and an allied attorney representing Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate, and Thom Tillis, then speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives (now a U.S. senator) to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, Berger v. American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
“The First Amendment does not allow groups like the ACLU to suppress a state’s positive message just because the state does not also simultaneously approve a conflicting negative message,” said ADF Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden. “Citizens of North Carolina have the freedom to promote messages on their vehicles that their legislature has expressly adopted through license plate legislation.”
In the Walker case, the Supreme Court held that Texas’s license plate program constituted government speech, and that Texas therefore could reject plates with messages that contradicted the state’s public policy.
“Third parties like the ACLU cannot sanitize the public square of views a state communicates simply because they do not like those messages,” added lead counsel Scott Gaylord, one of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF and a professor of law at Elon University School of Law. “As the Supreme Court made clear in Walker, the attempt to censor a message like North Carolina’s ‘Choose Life’ message is inconsistent with both the purpose of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court’s government speech precedents.”
In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized an optional “Choose Life” specialty license plate. Citizens who choose the plate pay an additional $25 fee, $15 of which goes to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a private organization that assists pregnant women in North Carolina. The state offers other specialty plates that also fund causes benefitting the state and that are consistent with its public policies.
Hundreds of North Carolinians requested the “Choose Life” specialty plates, but before North Carolina could begin issuing them, the ACLU challenged the law. The ACLU argued that the “Choose Life” plate must be censored because the state did not also issue a license plate that encourages abortion, even though encouraging abortions is contrary to the state’s interests and public policy.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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