Robert Knight

It’s true that states have to rein in vanity buyers if they cross the line of decency, such as using letters or even numbers to spell out profanities. And there are gray areas. Back in January, a Virginia prankster changed the meaning of the Family/Children Fund’s “Kids First” plates by having his spell out EAT THE. When apprised of this, officials yanked his plates.

The thwarted joker’s scheme is not to be confused with the “Kids Eat Free” plates that Virginia allows for a group whose motto is “Feeding the Physical, Spiritual and Intellectual Needs of Kids.” I guess that’s okay, although the Occupy Wall Street people would go way beyond that and make it “EVERYONE Eats Free!” They might also want to augment Virginia’s “Credit Union” plates with ones proclaiming: “Bankers Are Evil.”

Lawsuits over these things might seem to be just nuisances, but they do involve serious free speech issues and can be expensive for taxpayers.

In 2004, a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against South Carolina’s “Choose Life" plates resulted in the state having to pay Planned Parenthood’s legal bill of $157, 810 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Tennessee also found itself in court over “Choose Life” plates in 2004 in ACLU of Tennessee v. Bredesen. In 2006, the 6th U.S Circuit Court overturned a district court ruling against the state, saying, “Government can express public policy views by enlisting private volunteers to disseminate its message, and there is no principle under which the First Amendment can be read to prohibit government from doing so because the views are particularly controversial or politically divisive.”

The court pointed out that nobody is forced to buy the “Choose Life” plates, unlike, say, New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” plates that all Granite State vehicles must bear. In 1977 in Wooley v. Maynard, the U.S. Supreme Court said that New Hampshire drivers could cover up the state motto if they disagreed with it, but that the state had a right to put it on the plates. Accordingly, in Bredesen, the Sixth Circuit said, “’Choose Life’ is Tennessee's public message, just as ‘Live Free or Die’ communicated New Hampshire's individualist values and state pride.”

The Tennessee plate has a beautiful, laughing baby on it despite home state environmental champion Al Gore’s implicit message that each new child is a threat to the planet.

Up in Montana, drivers can purchase the state Right to Life’s “Choose Life” or Planned Parenthood of Montana’s “Pro-Family, Pro-Choice,” which makes about as much sense as “Pro-Health, Pro-Measles.”

The current controversy is likely to continue for years, as courts have been all over the map, with some ruling that message plates constitute a “public forum,” and others disagreeing.

Twenty-nine states have “Choose Life” plates or have authorized them, according to the Winston-Salem Journal, which doesn’t provide a list of how many states offer “Abort Your Baby” plates, which is probably none.

Seems like an injustice just waiting for an ACLU lawyer to help rectify.

Robert Knight

Robert Knight is an author, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a frequent contributor to Townhall.