September 22, 2003
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond will hear oral arguments tomorrow morning in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of South Carolina’s “Choose Life” special license plate. Late last year, a federal court in Charleston struck down the plates, which were authorized by the South Carolina legislature, as a violation of free speech. The case, Planned Parenthood v. Rose, was then appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a nearly identical “Choose Life” bill during the 2003 session, but it was vetoed by Governor Warner. The vote margins favoring the bill -- 57-37-2 in the House and 25-14 in Senate -- were substantial, but not enough to overcome the veto.
The ACLU of Virginia vigorously opposed the Virginia “Choose Life” bill and asked the Governor to veto it.
The “Choose Life” lawsuit is not the first special license plate case to be addressed by the Fourth Circuit. Last year, the Court ruled that special license plates constitute a public forum for speech by private citizens and that the Virginia legislature illegally censored the Sons of Confederate Veterans when it removed the Confederate battle flag from the organization’s license plate before approving it. That case was Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
In the South Carolina case, the Charleston court relied on the Sons of Confederate Veterans case when it ruled that the legislature gave preference to a particular viewpoint on reproductive rights by creating a “Choose Life” plate but not a plate with a pro-choice message.
“This is not about reproductive freedom but about free speech,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “The legislature cannot issue a license plate advocating one viewpoint on reproductive freedom without giving the other viewpoint the same opportunity. We would be equally opposed if the there were a law authorizing a “Pro-Choice” license plate without authorizing a “Choose Life” plate.”
“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 -- the government must allow all view-points, neither excluding those they oppose nor preferring to those they support,” added Willis.
The ACLU has long urged the Virginia General Assembly to stop issuing special license plates altogether and to turn the program over to the Division of Motor Vehicles. According to the ACLU, nothing prevents DMV from running the special license plate program, so long as plates are issued without regard to the message that appears on them.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022