WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court declined yesterday to consider whether states may offer license plates with antiabortion messages, leaving lower courts divided over whether the programs in a dozen states unconstitutionally restrict dissenting views.
Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling that said the South Carolina license plates with the slogan "Choose Life" violate the First Amendment because abortion-rights supporters weren't given a similar forum.
The high court's move means South Carolina will either have to eliminate the specialty plates or begin offering ones reflecting abortion-rights views. That ruling is at odds, however, with a prior decision by the New Orleans-based US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which essentially allowed the plates because it said abortion-rights advocates didn't have standing to bring a lawsuit in the case.
Abortion-rights advocates cheered the Supreme Court's move yesterday.
"Free speech does not mean muzzling opposing points of view," said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "America's prochoice majority deserves a fair chance to be heard in any venue."
Under the South Carolina program begun in 2001, drivers pay a $70 fee to purchase the antiabortion plates, with the revenue going toward local crisis-pregnancy programs. Specialty plates with abortion-rights slogans are not offered.
Planned Parenthood of South Carolina, which filed the lawsuit, had argued that the program amounts to "viewpoint discrimination" by state officials because they allow the expression of only one side of the abortion debate.
South Carolina countered that the plates are "government speech" that entitles them to allow a particular viewpoint without an obligation to include dissenting views. Otherwise, the state would have to allow countering views to license plates touching on any public policy matter, such as "God Bless America."
The plate is "the most recent and apparently most visible expression in a long line of statements asserting the state's clear and oft-repeated preference for childbirth over abortion," state officials argued in their filing.
The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., disagreed and ruled the plates were unconstitutional. It rejected South Carolina's contention that Planned Parenthood lacked "standing," or an actual injury, because it never applied for a specialty plate under a separate law allowing nonprofit groups to seek plates bearing their insignia for members. The Fourth Circuit also covers Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The ruling was at odds with one by the Fifth Circuit, which ruled in December 2002 that Louisiana abortion-rights advocates had no standing to sue that state over its antiabortion plate. The Fifth Circuit covers the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
Since that Fifth Circuit ruling, abortion-rights advocates have modified their lawsuit into an overall challenge of Louisiana's specialty plate system. A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit is currently reviewing the case.
Planned Parenthood may "base their claim of injury on the state's unequal treatment of two viewpoints in the abortion debate, specifically, its promotion of only the prolife view," the Fourth Circuit stated.
According to South Carolina's court filing, 11 other states offer "Choose Life" plates: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
The law allowing the "Choose Life" plate was signed by South Carolina's governor, Jim Hodges, in 2001 and was included in a bill that allowed NASCAR and other specialty plates. In 2003, US District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy issued a preliminary injunction blocking South Carolina from issuing the plates.