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Federal appeals court strikes down North Carolina 'choose life' license plates

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that a 2011 North Carolina law that permits residents to display a license plate reading "Choose Life" is unconstitutional. North Carolina appealed to the Fourth Circuit after a federal district court judge struck down [JURIST reports] the law. The Fourth Circuit held that North Carolina violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution [Cornell LLI backgrounder] by permitting the "choose life" license plate while refusing pro-life specialty plates. The court stated that this constitutes "blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment." Scott Gaylord of Elon University School of Law argues [JURIST op-ed] that the government speech doctrine outlined in two recent US Supreme Court decisions permits North Carolina to speak for itself through the "choose life" license plate and thus viewpoint neutrality principles are not applicable. However, the Fourth Circuit addressed this issue in its decision and determined that a specialty license plate constitutes private speech on government property and therefore implicates viewpoint neutrality. Chris Brook of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], who argued the case before the Fourth Circuit, applauded Tuesday's ruling and stated [press release] that his organization would have taken the same position if the state issued a pro-choice license plate while prohibiting a pro-life one.

Abortion [JURIST news archive] has been a particularly controversial issue in North Carolina in recent years. Last month a federal judge in North Carolina ruled [JURIST report] that the state's abortion ultrasound law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The law in question, the Woman's Right to Know Act [HB 854 materials] called for a 24-hour waiting period before receiving an abortion and required women to view an ultrasound of the fetus prior to the procedure. The law was vetoed [JURIST report] by former North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue in June 2011. However, the following month, both the House and Senate [JURIST reports] in North Carolina voted to override the veto.

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