BROOKE GLADSTONE: Across America the license plate is a great vehicle for self-expression. In fact in a couple of minutes you'll hear Bob describe the lengths to which people will go in his State of Virginia to vent on their bumpers. But not only do Virginians use the letter/number combo's on vanity plates to send a message. The state's department of motor vehicles offers roughly 180 specialty plates, including some with university and club seals, a butterfly, eagle, horsehead, ducks and George Washington. This month the Virginia state house okayed yet another design for a specialty plate -- the embossed words "Choose Life." Choose Life is the name of an organization that supports adoption. It claims to take no stand on abortion. Kent Willis is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia and he joins me now. Welcome to the show.
KENT WILLIS: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now it seems strange that the ACLU would object to any kind of speech, but you object to the way this design was selected, right?
KENT WILLIS: We object to the fact that this is one side of the speech; this is a license plate saying "Choose Life" where the proceeds from it go only to organizations that refuse to acknowledge that anyone should be able to receive an abortion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then would your concerns be addressed somewhat if the state also offered a plate that said, for instance, "Choose Choice?"
KENT WILLIS:If the state were able to do both, it might satisfy a lot of the free speech concerns. But what we're talking about here in general is the state creating a forum for speech and then deciding by majority vote of the legislators who gets to speak and who doesn't. The State of Virginia has to allow equal access to these plates to anyone that wants to express their views.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There was another case in Virginia which pitted the Sons of Confederate Veterans against the state. In that case, the organization wanted the option of putting the Confederate flag on their plates, and the state was sued for censorship.
KENT WILLIS: This is really the pivotal case, because this is the case that went to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals -- a step just below the U.S. Supreme Court -- where they were deciding for the first time just what these special license plates were. In that case, a bill was introduced for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The original bill also had in it that the Sons of Confederate Veterans' logo, the Confederate battle flag, would appear on the license plate along with their name. When the state finally passed the bill, they took off the Confederate battle flag because they decided it wasn't appropriate to be on a license plate. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued; it went to court; and that's when the Fourth Circuit of Appeals ultimately said these license plates are a public forum, and you can't censor what takes place in a public forum, and so-- the Confederate battle flag stays.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I remember a few years back some New Hampshire residents opposed for religious reasons the state slogan "Live free or die" that appears on their plates?
KENT WILLIS: Someone decided that they did not like that message on their plate, so they put some tape over it. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said in the same way you can't force someone to say the Pledge of Allegiance, you can't force them to state the, the state's slogan if they disagree with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you describe what the current state of play is on the Choose Life license plate?
KENT WILLIS:The legal landscape regarding license plates now appears to be this: the U.S. Supreme Court in the New Hampshire case said that you cannot compel someone to put a certain point of view on their plate. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Sons of Confederate Veterans' case said that you cannot censor something that's put on a license plate. And now, out of a federal district court in South Carolina we have a judge saying that the state cannot endorse a certain point of view on the license plate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's the Choose Life case we're talking about right now.
KENT WILLIS: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eight states have already approved Choose Life license plates. Is this battle already lost for the ACLU?
KENT WILLIS:No, in fact no court has ruled in favor of one of these plates. I mean certainly it, it is likely that if Virginia passes the law for a Choose Life plate, it will be challenged in court, and most likely by the ACLU. We believe that for consistency sake at the very least that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals would strike down the Choose Life case as unconstitutional and it is indeed possible that that case would end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you very much!
KENT WILLIS: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kent Willis is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia.