The backside of a car has long been a platform for political expression. (“Don’t Blame Me — I’m From Massachusetts,” anyone?) In the past, that came mainly in the form of bumper stickers. More recently, states have given motorists the choice of having a statement fixed to their license plates (“Taxation without representation,” for example, in Washington D.C.). But when North Carolina legislators offered drivers the chance to choose license plates with a pro-life message but not a pro-choice one, the lawmakers were restricting free speech. A federal judge was right to block the anti-abortion plates last week.
The First Amendment doesn’t let the government pick the viewpoints that can and can’t be spoken in public. That’s essentially what North Carolina was trying to do. The specialty plates authorized by the state legislature weren’t just about abortion — others carried pro sports logos and veterans group badges. But while lawmakers approved the “Choose Life” plate, they rejected an option for drivers to display a pro-choice plate.
Like North Carolina, Massachusetts allows drivers the option of carrying a pro-life plate but not a pro-choice one. Yet the First Amendment concerns aren’t nearly as strong here. The pro-life plate, first offered to Bay State drivers in 2010, is the work of grassroots activists, who met the state’s minimal requirements of posting a $100,000 bond and collecting applications and fees from 1,500 drivers to make the specialty plate a reality. No legislative approval is necessary. That seems a low enough bar, reachable by activists for most plate-worthy causes. Pro-choice advocates who want their own plates should start mobilizing.