By Michal Ortner
A New York Department of Motor Vehicles has won the right to decline the production and distribution of personalized “Choose Life” license plates. The federal appeals court ruled that commissioners who believe that the plates could be “patently offensive” will not be required to use them.
The “Choose Life” plates originate with The Children First Foundation, which sell the plates as a way to raise money for the care of abandoned babies and for adoptions in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and D.C. areas. The foundation’s request to submit the plates was rejected by he DMV because of a “policy not to promote or display politically sensitive messages” on license plates. The DMV was also concerned that it would portray governmental support for “one side of a controversy that has existed in this country for several decades.”
According to the foundation, people are less likely to buy a tag that says “Choose Adoption.”
A U.S. District Court Judge, Neal McCurn, ruled the DMV’s rejection of the “Choose Life” plates to be unconstitutional in 2011. The state appealed the ruling by going to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where two out of three judges voted that the DMV should have the right to dismiss whatever types of tags that they see unfit.
“We conclude that the DMV’s policy of excluding completely controversial political and social issues—regardless of the particular viewpoint espoused—from the nonpublic forum of custom license plates, based on concerns pertaining to potential violence and the perception of state endorsement of the message, is sufficiently well-established and has been uniformly enforced so as to render the Commissioner’s discretion adequately bridled,” wrote one of the judges, Rosemary Pooler.
“The issue of bringing to justice individuals who have attacked police officers cannot reasonably compare—either by its very nature or by the level of contentiousness that surrounds it—to the issue of abortion,” Pooler also wrote.
Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco provided a statement disagreeing with the ruling and is planning to fight back.
“Pro-adoption organizations should have the same speech rights as any other organization,” Tedesco said. “While the district court affirmed this basic freedom, the circuit court denied free speech in favor of government censorship. The state doesn’t have the authority to target the Children First Foundation specialty plates for censorship based on its life-affirming viewpoint.”
“The state has wrongly gotten away with speech discrimination against our client for more than 10 years,” he continued. “We will review our legal options.”