A coalition of anti-abortion groups wants a federal appellate court to order the state to produce special license plates with the message “choose life.”
The Arizona Life Coalition claims in legal papers that a special state commission, which reviews requests for special plates, acted illegally in rejecting its application. The lawsuit asks the three-judge panel to order the members of the Arizona License Plate Commission to approve the plate.
But James Morrow, an assistant state attorney general, said the commission did nothing wrong in rejecting the plates because the message was controversial, and the state should not allow its license plates to be turned “into a billboard for one side of a hotly contested issue.”
Lawyers for the coalition, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund and the Center for Arizona Policy, argued their clients are not trying to get the state on record as being opposed to abortion. They said Planned Parenthood or any other similar group would be allowed to propose its own license plates expressing an abortion rights view.
Morrow, however, said that is not anymore acceptable for state license plates than the one being pushed by the Arizona Life Coalition. And that, he said, is precisely why the Legislature told the commission to “steer clear of controversial issues.”
“The state must have the power to decline to express viewpoints that it does not wish to express,” Morrow wrote in the appellate briefs. “Many Arizonans may be offended if they believe that Arizona is sponsoring a pro-choice message, just as many Arizonans may be offended if they believe that Arizona is sponsoring a pro-life message.”
But Peter Gentala, one of the attorneys representing the coalition, said that argument misses the central point. He wants the appellate judges to rule that special licenses plates are a public forum. And that, he said, severely limits the ability of government — and the License Plate Commission — to restrict what they say.
State law allows Arizona lawmakers to create special plates on their own, as they have done for special groups like the three universities, environmental education and a fund to halt child abuse.
Legislators also set up the separate License Plate Commission to review other requests from nonprofit agencies. That panel has approved eight special plates for groups as diverse as firefighters to future farmers.
In both cases the plates do more than spread a message. They also raise money, with $17 of the extra $25 fee for these plates going to the sponsoring group.
The request, submitted in 2002, proposed a plate with the faces of two children on the left side of the plate and the phrase “choose life” along the bottom, where regular plates proclaim “The Grand Canyon State.” After two meetings it was rejected.
Coalition lawyers acknowledged the state law relied upon by the commissioners does permit the group to restrict special plates to organizations that serve the community. Other grounds for rejection include a requirement that the prime activity of sponsoring groups is neither offensive nor discriminatory.
They said, though, the law is unconstitutional because it allowed the commissioners to illegally infringe on the First Amendment rights of the coalition based solely on the message. But any contention of censorship has been derided by former Rep. Lela Steffey, R-Mesa, who was part of the commission that made the decision and is still on the panel. “And I’m about as pro-life as they get,” she said.
Steffey said permitting this group to get its own license plate would pave the way for other special interests to also demand their own plates, including Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights groups. A trial judge sided with the commission, concluding that license plates are not a public forum. That, said Judge Paul Rosenblatt, gives government more discretion in deciding what messages to allow.
Gentala, however, said the very creation of these special plates for nonprofit organizations offer Arizonans an expressive opportunity that does not exist for standard license plates — the chance to publicly associate and identify with an organization that serves the community and contributes toward the welfare of others, both requirements under the law.