My very first car was a Volvo. But before you send Muffy and Buffy over to play tennis, you should probably know that the car had the same date of birth as I did.
I lovingly plastered bumper stickers all over the back of that car that expressed my personality. I had a peace sign, an ACK sticker, and the Sublime sun. And I had a reserve license plate with three numbers and an L for Liz. In Massachusetts, having a reserve plate used to carry a lot of cachet - plus, it was pretty nice to only have to remember a few numbers.
I was pretty sure I was the coolest chick in Massachusetts. Old station wagon, low numbered plate, no stereo? The. Coolest.
And then charity plates started appearing. There were people who had SINGLE NUMBER license plates. And their plates had pictures on them. Suddenly, I was being trumped.
And then one day, I was driving along and I saw this plate:
See, I’m all for people speaking their mind and having their own opinions. Pro-choice/Pro-life? As long as you have an educated viewpoint, I don’t care which side you stand on.
But when I see your political opinion on something the government requires appear on all vehicles lawfully on the road, I start to get a little worried. Does this mean the Massachusetts government is sanctioning the Choose Life organization? And does that mean that Massachusetts is a Pro-Life state? And then what does that mean for contraceptive legislation? And abortion legislation? And is my money going to that organization even if I don’t want it to?
Well, I did some research and it turns out that in Massachusetts any non-profit organization can petition the registrar of motor vehicles for a distinct license plate design. They just have to offer up a $100,000.00 bond and have 1,500 people with filled out applications ready for the plate. If they don’t sell 3000 plates within 2 years, then the organization loses that $100,000.00 bond for the costs of production.
The only money that goes to that organization is the money individuals pay to get that specialty plate made.
Ultimately, this means that all non-profits have equal access to the license plate game in Massachusetts, but I still have some concerns about what these license plates are saying. I mean, doesn’t this seem like speech? And kind of like government sanctioned speech?
Turns out I’m not the only one with these concerns, but there aren’t that many easy answers. In fact, specialty license plates and the First Amendment issues that go with them have gone before several different federal courts in the US.
In the 11th Circuit, abortion-rights plaintiffs brought suit challenging the Choose Life license plate in Women’s Emergency Network v. Bush. The Court ruled that the abortion-rights plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge the plate – meaning that they weren’t injured by the plates (or that their injuries weren’t a direct result from those license plates).
In the 5th Circuit, the same standing issue came up when the Court ruled that Planned Parenthood didn’t have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the Louisiana statute authorizing Choose Life plates.
But then in South Carolina, a federal district court found that Planned Parenthood had standing because the statute authorizing Choose Life plates is “preferred” under the statute ”over whatever motto or slogan Planned Parenthood might employ to promote their point of view.” This was later affirmed in the 4th Circuit when the Court determined that the state committed viewpoint discrimination by favoring the Choose Life message and excluding the pro-choice message stating ”Discrimination can occur if the regulation promotes one viewpoint above others, and this is precisely what happened here.”
So what does all this case law mean?
Basically, that there’s no easy answer. There’s no agreement in the courts that specialty license plates are speech promoted by the government or that certain groups have a right to challenge them. In addition, there is disagreement in the courts about whether this is private speech or government speech and that adds to the tangled web.
In order for there to be a conclusive answer, it looks like the Supreme Court will have to address the issue. Until then, specialty plates will continue to be a contentious issue.
What do you think? Should specialty plates be allowed? Does it seem like the government is sanctioning the message on those plates?
(In case you were curious, here’s the list of specialty plates available in MA: The birthplace of basketball Basketball Hall of Fame, Massachusetts Environmental Trust, Bruins - Massachusetts Youth Hockey, Celtics – Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation / Boston Children’s Hospital, Cape Cod – Cape Cod and Islands: economic development, – Choose Life – Choose Life Inc, Conquer Cancer Conquer Cancer Coalition, Cure Breast Cancer – Diane Connolly-Zaniboni Breast Cancer Research Fund Tufts Medical Center, Fenway Park – build Kids Replica Ballpark, Inc, Firefighters MEmorial – Massachusetts Fallen Firefighters Memorial, Invest in Children – The United Way, I’m Animal Friendly – Massachusetts Animal Coalition, Olympics U.S. Olympic Committee, Patriots – New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, Red Sox – Jimmy Fund/Red Sox Foundation, United We Stand – Mass. 9/11 Fund Mass. Military Heroes Fund local police and fire departments)
- State General-Issue License Plate Gets New Look (dfw.cbslocal.com)