April 27, 2009

"Choose Life" — the license plate... the Supreme Court case.

The way Adam Liptak puts it:
Had the states not decided to make license plates a forum for a sometimes comical array of messages, the “Choose Life” cases would easy. But many states have turned their motor vehicle departments into a kind of souvenir shop. They may also have given up the right to decide what gets sold in them.
Mm... yes... it's called "free speech," and much of it is foolish and/or opinionated. Religion is one more category of expression. Deal with it.


TMink said...

I miss how "Choose Life" is at all offensive. I can see how other phrases would be, but Choose Life sounds benign to me.


MadisonMan said...

If someone wants to pay extra $$ for a stupid plate, go for it.

Back in College, I had a vanity plate, back when they were just an extra $10. It's amazing how much more they cost now. I've better things to throw my money away on now.

I would prefer, however, that the monies raised stayed with the state, and weren't given away to private groups, a practice that to me invites corruption. But that's for the Legislatures to decide.

Dale said...

Ann, a question- and I am deadly serious here:

Do you believe that Adam Liptak believes that religious expression by non-government entities is protected free speech?

It would seem that he is implying that the government is stepping over the church/state divide by even facilitating religious free speech expression of ordinary citizens.

I'm Full of Soup said...

So this means I can get one that says "Global Warming Is A Scam"?

Steve M. Galbraith said...

Allowing silly (or not so silly) statements on a license plate is endorsing those views how?

Public libraries carry Das Capital or Mein Kampf. No one thinks the state is endorsing the ideas in those books.

Make any limitations content neutral and the heck with it.

tim maguire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tim maguire said...

Ahh Mr. Galbriath, such refreshing naivete! Yes, there was a day once, long ago, when the government believed it had limitations and where there was a difference between allowing an activity to remain legal and supporting that activity.

But those days are long gone. In today's hyper-regulatory nanny-state, to permit is to promote. Government, by embracing its greedy power-mad inner child lo these many years, has put itself in this position.

Ann Althouse said...

@ Dale I think he probably believes that the government may discriminate against the religious viewpoint because of the compelling interest in avoiding the appearance of government-sponsored religion.

Joseph said...

Tim Maguire, I wish more conservatives would adopt your thinking that to permit is not to promote with respect to gay rights.

Peter V. Bella said...

In the words of King Richard II of Chicago:

This is just silly, it is silly, a silly issue. Why are we bothered by these silly issues. Plant trees. They should have plates to promote trees. Trees are good, not silly. Promote trees.

Steve M. Galbraith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tim maguire said...

You betcha, Joseph. I think you'd be surprised at how many conservatives support gay marriage (probably as many conservatives as liberals), especially the under-35 crowd. But mostly their priorities are elsewhere so they don't talk much about it. The ones who feel strongly are the ones who oppose.

Focus on the demographics--full gay rights will happen even if it means waiting for some of the old fogeys to die off. That's how movements win--not by changing the minds of the fully grown, but by capturing the youth and waiting for the oldsters to die.

Revenant said...

Why does "Choose Life" raise any establishment clause issues at all? The pro-life position isn't an inherently religious one, even though most of the people who hold it are religious. There are pro-life atheists, too.

Steve M. Galbraith said...

I wish more conservatives would adopt your thinking that to permit is not to promote with respect to gay rights
Allowing a tax payer to pay for a slogan on his or her license plate is analogous to extending the legal recognition (and benefits) of marriage to same sex couples?

Sorry, it's not a bad point but I'm not sure of it.

One is a neutral or passive act and the other is a active or positive one.

See Berlin, Isaiah:
Negative liberty versus positive liberty.

I'm Full of Soup said...

I agree with what Rev said. Pro life is not a purely religion view.

And FYI people - I don't think we are allowed to use the term "religion" anymore. Didn't you all get the memo? We must now say "faith-based"!

Christy said...

I have never gotten the appeal of vanity plates. I want to retain the option of being naughty with impunity. Hard to do with plates that can peg one at a glance.

saintrussell said...

SMGalbraith: Why do we still call "Capital" and "My Struggle" by their German titles? Out of habit, I suppose?

rhhardin said...

I'd get OIHO if I were into vanity plates.

hdhouse said...

How did "specialty plates" morph into "vanity plates" which are something quite different.

perhaps the point being made here is that the options avaiable for specialty plates are limited (is "choose death" an option? probably not) and that might be the rub.

vanity plates "deerGod" or "hotshorts" are purely elective and can come in nearly any combination that fits. They are not the same.

let's say you lived in S.Carolina and the choices for specialty plates were "in god we trust", "embrace life" or the SC state name. Then, don't you have a case or a potential? its either the state (netural) or a "conviction" that you might not share.

Isn't that the point here?

Kylos said...

My opinion as a pro-life conservative is that since the government cannot reasonably create plates for every cause or for every position on every issue, states are implicitly supporting the positions of each plate design they authorize. Unless a state can afford to authorize one-off custom plates, supplying certain specialty plates and not others will be viewed as an endorsement of a particular view. I wish the DMV’s would just go back to a few value-neutral designs to choose from.

CarmelaMotto said...

When I see a sign/plate that says "Choose Life" it makes me think of "Wham!" from the
1980s...they played this song at least once an hour on MTV. I loathed Wham.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Revenant and AJLynch. There is nothing remotely "religious" about "Choose Life." The slogan doesn't even mean that you should oppose abortion rights. There are plenty of people who claim to be "personally opposed" to abortion while supporting its availability, and surely they can be said to have "chosen life," and in some way to want others to do the same, without mandating that their choice be everyone's choice. Nor, of course, are the only objections to abortion religious ones.

Freeman Hunt said...

When I was a teenager I had a vanity plate that read, "THINK." (I know, I know. Embarrassingly arrogant in retrospect.)

One day I accidentally cut off a man riding a motorcycle. He read my plate and pulled up next to me to yell something like, "Think! Maybe you should take your own damn advice!" I laughed because he was right, and I knew that I so had it coming.

I'm too cheap for a vanity plate now.

mariner said...

hdhouse and Kylos:

No, it's not the point.

If you want "Embrace Death" or "In vino veritas" get enough people to demand the plates through the political process and they will be among the choices.

mariner said...


"I miss how "Choose Life" is at all offensive."

For some people the very existence of any alternative to abortion is offensive, and to actually PROMOTE another alternative (in public, no less) is to espouse the wholesale enslavement of women.

Such people drive lawsuits like this one.

bagoh20 said...

Does not the phrase "Choose life" support both choice and life. Who is against that?

Beth said...

Religion is a category of speech I deal with just fine; I'm happy to respond, not repress.

But in my state, and in others, pro-choice plates are not allowed. Choose Life plates are available, but the state refuses to approve any plates that support choice.

Why should I have to deal with that?

TosaGuy said...


how is your life lessened as a result?

People on both sides need to quit pretending to be offended.

Kylos said...

Mariner: What DMV is really going to want to approve a slogan such as "Embrace Death" even if it enjoys enough support to make it profitable? There are plenty of people who could come up with distasteful, yet legal slogans or positions to put on license plates.

It should be clear from the lawsuits surrounding these plates that getting a plate approved is not simply a matter of having enough public support. States don't want to make available controversial plates, but not providing them, especially if there is enough support for them puts them in the awkward position of limiting First Amendment rights

The solution is to get the government out of the business of creating position plates and leave that to the bumper sticker industry.

Kylos said...


We don't have a constitutional right to specialty plates, but we do have a constitutional right to free speech.

When the practical matter of appearing to sanction one position to the exclusion of another through the determination of which plates will be made available runs up against free speech concerns, removing a non-fundamental and ultimately unnecessary government function seems like the obvious solution, especially since the market can handle controversial speech with much less difficulty than the government.

Joseph said...

I agree with Kylos. I don't see why states should be in this business. It forces the DMV to determine which political statements are worthy of being available on the plates they produce.

And if you are allowed to have a pro-life message but not allowed to have a pro-choice message, it seems to me the pro-free speech forces should be lining up with the people who object to these plates.

If this was some government service that was really better performed by the government, I'd be more sympathetic, but guess I don't see what the real value is in having these political messages on your plates. Can't you just get a bumper sticker? That would take care of the inevitable problem of the government approving or disapproving political messages.

traditionalguy said...

Choose life is a religion based thought.That's because it says to choose life for weak and helpless Humans in mortal danger of being ex-terminated. Only those holding a sincere respect for the opinions of the Creator God of the Human species, has a dog in this fight. If this Tag referred to Choose Life for Whales, then it would not be controversial. But this tag as written is controversial to the Kill the Inconvient Humans crowd which notices that they are being called out. Before you ignore this fight, I suggest you determine how you ever became convenient enough to deserve birth here on Gods's green earth. Then pass it along.

I'm Full of Soup said...


I agree with you. Either allow anything or just get rid of the whole program.

Let's face it is just another way for the govt to take in more money. And they already have plenty IMO.

MadisonMan said...

I'm not Beth, but I'll ask: Shouldn't the Government be open to any message on a plate? If you have one group, why not all?

As many others in this thread have noted.

Steve M. Galbraith said...

If you have one group, why not all?
Sure, limits have to be content neutral.

Although I would think that racist or obscene statements could be banned.

IIRC, wasn't this orginally offered to raise revenue?

The Drill SGT said...

"Embrace Death"...

it's been done before:

The State Emblem of New Hampshire is an elliptical panel with a picture of the Old Man of the Mountain surrounded on the top by the state name and on the bottom by the state motto, "Live Free or Die."

mariner said...

In my own state pro-abortion license plates have been available for years.

"Choose Life" plates became available just this year, despite concerted opposition by Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups.

I didn't realize there were actually places where the pro-life message was available but the pro-abortion message was not.

Kylos said...


I think the issue of gay rights is a little more involved than this license plate issue. First, I'd separate gay marriage from other gay rights issues. On issues such as hospital visitation (and the very legality of homosexuality), gay people should not be treated any differently than heterosexual people. However (and I hope not to hijack the thread with this discussion), traditional marriage does serve a purpose from the government's perspective that homosexual marriage does not, which is the promotion of unions for the procreation and stable upbringing of future generations. Without the possibility of procreation, gay unions do not provide any benefit to society.

But, in general, I think we would agree that, too often, government is wielded as a club against political adversaries instead of protecting individual liberty.

Revenant said...

Choose life is a religion based thought.

Only for religious people, and not for all of them. There are entirely secular reasons for believing that human life is worthy of protection. One need not believe in a god or gods in order to believe that killing babies is morally wrong.

As for Beth's question about pro-choice plates, my understanding is that the government is allowed to favor one political viewpoint over another in official documents. It just can't do so with religious views. The Constitution forbids the establishment of religion, not the establishment of political positions.

Kylos said...

Drill SGT, that's not really embracing death though, is it? It's rather embracing freedom as the only way to live.

Joseph said...

Kylos: My analogy to gay rights was mostly motivated by frequently seeing conservative commenters invoke the idea that allowing gays to marry inherently promotes homosexuality, when in fact its just recognizing the reality of how different people are living. So, I seized on Tim Maguire's now deleted comment which said something along the lines of "to permit is not to promote" from a conservative perspective. I acknowledge its an imperfect analogy.

But I do object to your statement that "Without the possibility of procreation, gay unions do not provide any benefit to society." The government interest in marriage is not limited to procreation. I could say lots on this subject but I'll keep it short. Many people marry with no intention of procreating. See, e.g., Althouse and Meade (I apologize if my assumption there is misplaced). And there is a significant (and conservative) government interest in stable families and households whether they involve kids or not.

Kylos said...

Joseph: You're right, it's more complicated than the simple case I presented. I could go on, but I just wanted to point out that your analogy didn't fully apply. I don't want to hijack this thread, though, so I'll limit my discussion on this matter to what I've already said.

Smilin' Jack said...

For me "Choose Life" just brings to mind the cool opening rant in the movie "Trainspotting." Nothing to do with abortion or religion.

traditionalguy said...

Revenant...The point is that Convenient humans are protected for many reasons and Inconvenient humans are not protected unless there is an authority that will order it. Morality has to come from either a simple cost benefit analysis (convenient vel non) or from a Person making a personal decision to intervene and to save an inconvenient Life from the will of the killers who "Own" it. The Person making that decision we call God.

Jeremy said...

How about this one:

"A Woman's Choice"

Nothing political about that.


Revenant said...

Morality has to come from either a simple cost benefit analysis (convenient vel non) or from a Person making a personal decision to intervene and to save an inconvenient Life from the will of the killers who "Own" it. The Person making that decision we call God.

I call him "me".

KCFleming said...

I wonder if "Kill Fetus" would pass muster?

My current vanity plate reads FLZ 189.
I don't recall that it stands for anything, however. I just really enjoy the combination.

Next plate change I'm popping for JWX 324.
That one makes me smile.

Ann Althouse said...

@Pogo I used to have a license plate with LX6711 -- something like that. I liked it so much that I thought I'd buy it as a vanity plate. It seemed luxurious and lucky. Memorable too. I couldn't tell you what my current license number is, but that old one I'll always remember.

KCFleming said...

When I was younger and even geekier I wanted THX 1138 or NEXUS 6.

Or the upside down calculator words like 07734.

Now I want to be invisible, so the random numbers work fine.

My neighbor has the license "RAWWWW 1".

George Grady said...

The Hippocratic Oath (from the 4th century BC) contains the line:

I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

This is hardly an essentially Christian issue.

Steve M. Galbraith said...

The Hippocratic Oath (from the 4th century BC) contains the line:This is why, I've read (unimpeachable source, no?), that doctors aren't required to take the oath anymore.

It forbids abortion.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

The whole thing of these "special" plates is ridiculous in the first place. All it is, is a money sink. A way for the State to make more money.

License plates are meant to identify your vehicle in case of accident or crime. PERIOD.

If you want to customize your car or use it as an advertisement for your personal opinions....get some fuzzy dice, decorate your back window with plastic aborted fetuses on a string or purple dingle balls, plastic Jesus on the dashboard, Satan painted on the grill of your truck, sexy hula girs on the dash, pinstripe your car, put neons under the carriage, buy bumper stickers.....WHAT EVER!

The State should stay out of it.

Revenant said...

This is why, I've read (unimpeachable source, no?), that doctors aren't required to take the oath anymore. It forbids abortion.

It also forbids surgery and requires veneration of Apollo, both of which are probably bigger problems for most doctors than a ban on abortion would be. :)

Revenant said...

All it is, is a money sink. A way for the State to make more money.

If people want personalized plates and the state actually turns a profit providing them, how's that a bad thing? Of all the ways the state can pay for its operation, aren't voluntary fees the best?

Peter V. Bella said...

"License plates are meant to identify your vehicle in case of accident or crime. PERIOD."

Sorry, DBQ, but plates are nothing more than a receipt to show you paid your wheel tax and the vehicle was properly registered as paid. That is all they ever were supposed to be. A tax receipt.

Anonymous said...

Can I get the "Choose Life" license plate with a picture of Ewan McGregor on it???


Eric said...

I don't see why states should be in this business.

Money. My state makes a killing off those things.

Freeman Hunt said...

I once saw a Subaru with "URABUS."

Revenant said...

I once saw a Subaru with "URABUS."

My favorite was a pickup truck with a license plate of "TONKA".

TMink said...

"A Woman's Choice" would be a fine license plate. It is of course political, so what? I said that "Choose Life" was not offensive, I never said that it was not political.

The only specialty plate I want is one that has the Smokey Mountains on it and $35 goes to that park.


AlphaLiberal said...

Free speech -- by the government?

Do they make an array of license plates available? So they have them, also, for the counter position?

No? Well, I don't know the all law involved but it sounds like a crock.

And why do conservatives think they're s pro-life when they're so pro-war and pro-execution? Dumb.

Revenant said...

Do they make an array of license plates available? So they have them, also, for the counter position? No? Well, I don't know the all law involved but it sounds like a crock.

So if they wanted to issue a Martin Luther King stamp, they'd have to issue a Bull Connor stamp too?

The government is allowed to take a position on political issues. It is allowed to be 100% anti-racism, or pro-Iraq-war, or anti-drug, or anti-abortion, or pro-choice. Whatever it wants.

It can't forbid you from expressing disagreement with it, but it can refuse to give you government resources with which to express that disagreement. One more reason why a socialist government would be a dangerous one; lack of private resources means lack of freedom.

kentuckyliz said...

Hos is "Choose Life" religious?

I have a breast cancer plate, and in addition to having the pink ribbon, it has the distinct outline of boobies on it.

The Kentucky version of the "Global Warming is a Scam" license plate is the black "Friends of Coal" license plate, which is pretty sharp looking.