If you oppose abortion rights — and do most of your politicking with the back end of your car — a ruling from a federal appeals court is about to ruin your day.
A years-long effort to get the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a “pro-life” specialty license plate has just ended in defeat for the plaintiff in a case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, an anti-abortion group called the Children First Foundation Inc.
Nonprofit groups in New York are allowed to apply for specialty plates as a method of fundraising. The plates are issued by the state for a fee, and the DMV and the organization then split the proceeds.
The plate in question features a cartoon drawing of small kids and the slogan “choose life,” and was designed to benefit Children First, which says it promotes adoption as an alternative to abortion. The group, based in the Westchester County town of Eastchester, first filed suit in 2004 (!) after initially being denied by a DMV commissioner’s ruling. Abortion was such a contentious political issue, the DMV said, that having a plate like that on the road might lead to conflict or even contribute to “road rage.” They also argued that the issuance of an official anti-abortion-rights license plate might make it appear as if the state itself were taking sides in the debate.
For several years, Children First attempted to negotiate with the DMV over the design of its plate, reducing the print size of the “choose life” slogan and emphasizing the adoption-support aspect — concessions the Second Circuit said were cosmetic and didn’t change the group’s essential anti-abortion message. (The group has posted relatively minuscule revenues — in the range of $30,000–$40,000 — for the past few years, most of which it claims it distributes in the form of grants to “nonprofit pro-life agencies or individuals” promoting adoption over abortion.)
The most recent ruling largely endorses the DMV’s earlier position, that abortion is just too heated a topic for the state to get tangled up in.
Although reasonable minds may differ when weighing and comparing the controversial nature of the various political issues of our day, it is undisputed that abortion is among the most hotly and passionately contested. We cannot conclude that the DMV acted unreasonably when it decided that abortion was unique among the issues…
In its decision, the court pointed to other rulings that allowed the state to set off abortion as a special case; under longstanding precedent, the government’s actions in prohibiting some kinds of speech don’t violate the First Amendment as long as they don’t favor one position over another, i.e., as long as they don’t prohibit anti-abortion speech but permit pro-abortion speech. Taking such a “viewpoint neutral” approach would also mean denying a group that sought a pro-abortion plate, something that apparently hasn’t happened in New York.
In other states, specialty plates honor everything from whales to guns. And the whole specialty plate thing is actually pretty hot right now — so hot — as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to rule on a similar case out of Texas. In a move that seems shockingly un-Texan in its reasonableness, the DMV in that state denied an attempt to issue a specialty plate honoring a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the design of which featured a Confederate flag. The DMV decided that the state couldn’t be seen as endorsing such a divisive symbol, and one so closely associated with racist views.
The effect of the Second Circuit’s ruling will be held until after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Texas case, expected later this summer.
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional mutant park squirrel.