Arizona motorists will be able to put state license plates on their vehicles with an anti-abortion message.
In a unanimous ruling Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision of both the state License Plate Commission and a trial judge that plates with that kind of message are prohibited by Arizona law. The judges specifically ordered the commissioners to meet and approve the “Choose Life” license plates.
Judge Richard Tallman, writing for the court, said commission members impermissibly denied the request by Arizona Right to Life solely because of the content of the message. That, he said, violated the First Amendment.
Tallman also said the reason commission members gave for denying the request — the controversial nature of the message — did not fall within the reasons permitted by Arizona law.
Cydney DeModica, public affairs specialist for the state Motor Vehicle Division, said she had not seen the decision and could not comment.
Monday’s ruling has significance beyond the specific “Choose Life” plates that the court ordered the commission to approve. It also bars commission members from denying future requests for specialty plates solely because the message is controversial.
In fact, that’s exactly what worried commission member Lela Steffey when the panel rejected the “Choose Life” plate in 2002 — and why she voted to reject it.
“And I’m about as pro-life as they get,” she said.
Steffey said the ruling will open the door for other special interests to also demand their own plates, including Planned Parenthood. She said those messages, both pro and con, should not be on state license plates.
“Those are government-issued things,” Steffey said. She said proponents and opponents of legal abortion should instead “put it on a bumper sticker.”
For the moment, Steffey’s fears are academic: Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona, said his organization has no plans to request its own plates.
State law allows Arizona lawmakers to create special plates on their own, as they have done for special groups such as 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, though sale of some are restricted to members of that organization.
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.
This request, submitted in 2002 by the Arizona Life Coalition, 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 now proclaim “The Grand Canyon State.” After two meetings it was rejected.
Attorneys for the state presented various arguments, including the assertion that having such a message could be taken as the state’s endorsement.
Tallman said that clearly was not the case. And that, he said, restricted the right of the state — and the commission — to decide what messages are appropriate.
“We recognize that Arizona has a legitimate interest in regulating controversial material displayed publicly on government property,” the judge wrote. But he said that doesn’t allow the state, having made the decision to allow organizations to have specialty plates, to reject such messages, saying there are “potential constitutional problems when government officials are given unbridled discretion in regulating speech, even in limited public (forums).”
Peter Gentala, attorney for the Center for Arizona Policy, one of the coalition members, said winning the case wasn’t solely about raising money at $17 a plate.
“Organizations — and my clients are no exception — value the idea of being able to have their message out there on a license plate,” he said.
Howard said he does not believe having a short message on license plates would change anyone’s mind on the abortion issue.
“Most Arizonans feel that this issue has been settled,” he said.
The Arizona Life Coalition includes the Center for Arizona Policy, Arizona Right to Life, the Crisis Pregnancy Center of Arizona and other organizations.