editorial (2006-12)

No Choice

License plates shouldn’t be message boards, period

No Choice

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of a “Choose Life” anti-abortion license plate for Tennessee is astonishing, given the fact that the Legislature turned down a request for a balancing, pro-choice “Choose Choice” tag.

When the anti-abortion plate’s legislation was adopted, Gov. Phil Bredesen declined to sign it, allowing it to go on the books without his endorsement. He may have thought the Legislature, in its wisdom, would send him the pro-choice tag as a countervailing option. It didn’t.

The Cincinnati court’s three-judge panel voted 2-1 to reverse the Nashville district court’s position that the state interfered with free speech rights by approving the anti-abortion tag and rejecting the pro-choice plate.

Incredibly, the appellate majority classified the message on the tags and other specialty plates as “government speech.” That arouses all sorts of fresh argument. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court can be expected.

The nation’s high court declined to overturn a similar federal court ruling in South Carolina, where the case turned on the issue of discrimination against pro-choice advocates. With opposite rulings in two circuits, the Supreme Court is likely to take the appeal from Tennessee, once it is brought.

The dissenting judge in Cincinnati took the district court’s position that the anti-abortion tag, distributed without offering a pro-choice tag, would discriminate against one side of the abortion argument, which is exactly what it would do. How the two prevailing judges there saw otherwise is baffling.

The whole free speech/government speech mess raises separate questions:

License tags are the state’s property, public property, when it comes to that, and their purpose is simply to identify motor vehicles by assigning them individual numbers or number/letter combinations and stickers to show the currency of their registration.

Vanity tags and specialty tags cost more—about $35 a year more—and the state pockets the vanity fee, but it allows non-profit organizations, such as Friends of the Smokies, to benefit from a part of the extra charge. In the case of the “Choose Life” tag, which has yet to be issued because of the court challenge, an anti-abortion group would benefit.

The state doesn’t need this source of revenue. It has the power to tax and to set license fees. If it wishes to support non-profit entities with state money, as it does in many respects, it should set up commissions, as it has in many areas, to vote on such support in open public meetings.

People who wish to display messages on their motor vehicles can plaster them with bumper or window stickers that cost a whole lot less than $35 and are more eye-catching than license tags.

A better way to raise revenue from license plates would be to charge more for those on expensive vehicles than on less expensive ones. A graduated tax on vehicles, based on their Blue Book value, would raise a little money for Tennessee, as it does in a number of states, without getting the state in the position of appearing to advocate positions with which reasonable people may disagree.

We have argued that vehicle registration is too cheap in this state, despite local-option wheel taxes, and that people who can afford only inexpensive cars and trucks shouldn’t be taxed at the same level as those who can afford much more costly transportation. Who needs a vanity plate, for pity’s sake, when driving an exotic new $75,000 car? That’s a vanity expression in and of itself, and it’s a rolling two-ton billboard of expressiveness. And anybody with a few extra bucks and the inclination can post their name, or their sweetie’s name, or their profession or association on a front bumper tag.

Let’s put the state back in the business of producing identity tags, rather than message boards, for its citizens’ vehicles. That way there’ll be no question of the state taking a controversial position against a legal procedure, no matter who comes frothing at the mouth to demand it.

It’s true that there are 12 other states offering the “Choose Life” tag, but most of those at least donate proceeds from their sale to adoption groups. If the Tennessee legislators who voted to approve the plate cared much about lives, they’d have made sure the benefit went to unwanted children.

Tennessee has managed to establish more than 120 specialty plates, most of which salute non-controversial subjects. But where is the state’s legitimate interest in those specialties?

Couldn’t we do without seeing Tennessee tags touting the Universities of Kentucky or Florida, or Auburn? Let those colors be flown somewhere other than the state’s license plates.

With the exception of the free plates for vehicles owned by disabled veterans or ex-prisoners of war, let’s scrap the whole specialty tag program.