In a 2-1 decision today, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an earlier ruling and held that North Carolina’s “Choose Life” license plate constituted government speech not subject to First Amendment scrutiny.
The circuit judges ruled 2-1 that license plates constitute governmental speech and that the state can reject messages they disagree with, the Associated Press reported via ABC11. In 2011, the state’s general assembly passed legislation that would allow the anti-abortion license pale tags but reject ones with slogans like “Respect Choice.”
In light of the new ruling, the Division of Motor Vehicles may now be able to issue “Respect Life” tags.
“We now conclude that specialty license plates issued under North Carolina’s program amount to government speech and that North Carolina is therefore free to reject license plate designs that convey messages with which it disagrees,” Chief Judge William Traxler wrote in his decision, according to the Charlotte Observer.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina was critical of the ruling. “It’s very disappointing that North Carolina can now deny drivers on one side of this contentious issue an equal ability to express their views,” ACLU executive director Sarah Preston said in a news release.
“Regardless of the court’s ruling, the General Assembly should finally do the right thing and allow citizens on both sides of this controversial issue to purchase specialty license plates supporting their views.”
U.S. Fourth Circuit Judge James A. Wynn was the only dissenting judge. He argued that this constituted both governmental and private speech. “Insisting otherwise is tantamount to ‘insisting that a mule must be either a horse or a donkey,’” Wynn stated in his dissent. “I refuse to believe,” Wynn added, “… that the Supreme Court meant to force us to choose that the mule in this case is either a horse or a donkey.’”