Thursday, July 10, 2003

Kingfishery & Kingcakery - Court rules that the state must allow Pro-Choice license plates to be available alongside Pro-Life ones, or to bag the specialty license plate program entirely. From an interesting report off the AP Wire. I'm reprinting it in full here because the link will not likely last:

Federal judge blocks Louisiana specialty license plates

The Associated Press
7/9/2003, 6:05 p.m. ET

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal judge has blocked the state from issuing specialty license plates, a victory for abortion-rights activists who challenged the Legislature's decision to allow an anti-abortion plate without authorizing one for the other view.

In a decision filed late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said the plates, which show a cartoon of a pelican carrying a baby, constitute a public forum covered by free-speech rights.

"If the state built a convention hall for speech and then only allowed people to speak with whom they agreed with their message, the state's actions would be in contravention of the First Amendment," Duval wrote. "There is no significant difference in the case before the court."

The Legislature and the governor approve specialty plates, which are sold for $25 and raise money for diverse groups and causes including universities, wildlife conservation and the Girl Scouts. There are nearly 150 of these plates in Louisiana — each with the cartoon emblem of the touted group, like a black bear or LSU, instead of the standard state-issued design about the Louisiana Purchase commemoration.

Motorists already driving with specialty tags will be able to keep them.

Duval's order does not block the special plates for handicapped motorists. It also does not cover the personal plates, sometimes called "vanity" plates, for which individuals pay extra to display their own names or initials instead of the state-assigned license number.

Attorney General Richard Ieyoub said the state will appeal. In the interim, he said he hopes the court will allow the tags to continue to be sold so that no money will be lost while waiting for the final court ruling.

William Rittenberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, noted the ruling does not ban specialty plates in the future, but merely the way the state now authorizes them.

"The ruling in no way means the state can't have a law for these kinds of plates," he said. "It just means that if they have a law, it's got to be a law for everybody."

Rittenberg said the state could pass a law similar to other states which allow specialty plates to be issued if a certain number of people request them.

"It seems like a weird decision to take away the free speech rights of everybody else who has a specialty plate," said Steven Johnston, spokesman for Gov. Mike Foster.

Duval blocked the sale of the "Choose Life" plates in 2000, saying they amounted to viewpoint discrimination. But the tags went on sale last fall after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Duval.

The appeals court said the suit would be dismissed unless it was turned into a challenge of the entire system by which specialty tags are handed out.

The plaintiffs have complained that the funds generated by the "Choose Life" plates are unfairly distributed because pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood get no money.

Planned Parenthood, along with other groups and individuals, claim the plates represent a symbolic union between the state and religious groups opposed to abortion, violating the constitutional ban against state-sponsored religion.

In his ruling, Duval said the ruling was not about the abortion debate.

"It is about the First Amendment and the constitutional guarantees that have been the bedrock of this great nation," Duval wrote. "To gloss over this most basic right of citizens of the United States is to invite a ride on the slippery slope to losing those rights."

Simon Heller, an attorney for another plaintiff, the Center for Reproductive Rights, said it was not the intent of the challengers to stop specialty plates.

"It really recognizes what I hope will be clear to the Louisiana Legislature, that they can't set up this system by which they decide which people get to express their views on license plates," Heller said.
I don't buy the Planned Parenthood separation of church/state argument, but the equal free speech argument makes a lot of sense to me.

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