High court refuses to review anti-abortion tag programs

In a move that appears to protect “government speech” while stifling individual expression, the U.S. Supreme Court June 26 announced its decision not to hear appeals from the American Civil Liberties Union and other pro-choice groups who are fighting “Choose Life” license plates initiatives.

Lawmakers in Tennessee and other states have refused to offer a specialty tag for citizens wishing to purchase plates expressing support for reproductive rights. This refusal to provide an equal opportunity for an opposing viewpoint is seen by many as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech, allowing the state to promote only one side of a political argument and institute a “limited public forum.”

Although 50 percent of the funds generated by the specialty plates program in Tennessee are earmarked for Tennessee New Life Resources, Inc, an anti-abortion organization associated with Tennessee Right to Life, the group argued that the plate’s message is neutral and not political. They claimed that the state has a right to promote a “choose life” message much as it would a “don’t use drugs” or “stay in school” sentiment.

Similar tag programs in South Carolina and Louisiana have also been denied review by the Supreme Court.

The controversial specialty tag programs officially got underway in 1999 when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the first such proposal into law. Since that time, anti-choice activists have promoted the program in at least a dozen states including many outside of the “Bible Belt” south, such as Hawaii, Maryland and Connecticut.

The tags sell at a premium. Their purchase price is generally about $35 higher than the standard state-issued plates. Choose Life, Inc., the organization behind the specialty tag efforts, proudly touts its fund-raising efforts on behalf of anti-abortion rights groups. “In Florida, the plate has raised over $4 million as of February 2006 and the tags continue to sell, raising over $70,000 per month,” boasts CLI Treasurer Russ Amerling.

Hedy M. Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, expressed disappointment at the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the appeals, and reiterated the organization’s commitment to challenging “viewpoint discrimination.” She said that while the Tennessee case was closed, the group is reviewing other options, including legislative actions in order to protect the free speech rights of pro-choice advocates.