Civil liberties group warns that a lawsuit is likely if “Choose Life” bill is passedIn a memo sent to the House Committee on Transportation, the ACLU of Virginia today warned legislators that a bill to put “Choose Life” on a Virginia license plate is unconstitutional and is likely to result in a legal challenge.
Sponsored by Delegate Richard H. Black, HB 1406 authorizes a Virginia license plate bearing the words “Choose Life” and directs funds raised from the sale of the plate to non-profit agencies that offer free adoption services.
The ACLU memo also urges the General Assembly to get out of the specialty license plate business altogether by placing the program under the authority of the Division of Motor Vehicles or another state agency.
Specialty license plate programs run by state legislatures have come under the scrutiny of federal courts recently. Last year, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that specialty license plates are a public forum for private speech. The court then ordered Virginia to restore the Confederate battle flag logo to a specialty plate sought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, after legislators had it removed. One month ago, a federal court in South Carolina, struck down as unconstitutional a “Choose Life” plate, claming that the legislature was giving preference to particular viewpoint on reproductive rights, which it could not do in a forum for private speech.
“Access to a public forum cannot be determined by a legislative body,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “If that were the case, we might as well not have the First Amendment, for that would mean the government could decide by majority vote who gets to speak and who doesn’t.”
“The government has a right to its own opinion, but in a public forum—whether it is a demonstration in a park or a message on a license plate—government officials must allow all viewpoints, neither excluding those they oppose nor giving preference to those they support.” added Willis.
According to the ACLU, nothing in the Constitution prevents DMV from administering the specialty license plate program, so long as decisions regarding the plates are made without regard to the message on the plate.
The ACLU memo to legislators can be found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20030113-Choose-Life-Plate.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia , 804-644-8022