Vanity plates -- those alphanumeric jumbles that provide windows into a driver's soul, from "QT PIE" to "NYCEHUH" -- are huge financial bonanzas for states. With more than nine million of them in circulation and registration and renewal fees ranging from $20 to more than $100, some states can rely on yearly revenue beyond seven figures.
Vanity plates are personalized and highly personal -- everyone knows that the message is the driver's alone. If you're tooling through St. Louis and end up behind a car with a plate that reads "BCK OFF," you don't assume that the sentiment is endorsed or supported by anyone at the DMV or the Missouri government. Still, governments have rules about what is and isn't allowed on a plate. A Colorado woman so fond of bean curd that she applied for "ILVTOFU" was declined on the grounds that it could be misread. A librarian in Nevada named Stacy who had the vanity plate "XSTACY" for more than two decades was shocked when Nevada said she couldn't renew it: the state felt that the plate was now more synonymous with the drug than the woman, and illegal references are strictly banned.
You Can't Show Your Support Here
Special interest license plates, or specialty plates, that endorse a specific charitable cause such as California's Coastal Commission plates or Ohio's Pet License plates, present more difficult issues. They often bring in even more money than vanity plates, since the specialty plate fee is assessed on top the vanity plate surcharge. Florida introduced the first vanity plate after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Twenty-one years later, in fiscal 2007, the Sunshine State booked $33.5 million in revenues from its 113 specialty plates alone.
In most cases more than half of the fee for a specialty plate, and sometimes almost all of the fee, actually goes to the charitable organization responsible for the creation of the plate. The state then keeps a small percentage for manufacturing and administration.
But the arrival of the Choose Life specialty plate -- another Florida creation -- and the lawsuits that have followed it around the country, have kept many judges in many courts busy trying to decide between the First Amendment and states' rights. The question is, is a specialty plate a matter of free speech, and if so, whose? The individual's, or the state's?
The Choose Life plate was made available to Florida drivers in 2000, after a four year legislative and judicial fight, and in 2007 it was the 8th most popular plate offered. The organization behind it, Choose Life, Inc., has been fighting to get the plate approved in every united state. The court battles that it has been waging for years and increasingly winning usually pit it against the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. According to Choose Life, Inc. as of July 1, 22 states have Choose Life license plates, three states have approved them but they aren't yet available, 13 states are working on it, there are lawsuits in three other states, and in 9 states there is no work being done on the issue. Yet.
An example of a pro-life license plate, for the state of Florida, supported by Choose Life, Inc.. Debates rage across the nation as to the legality of such plates.
At its most basic, Choose Life, Inc. is a non-profit. As far as the license plate is concerned, though, the charity wants to provide money for crisis pregnancy centers that will provide counseling and avenues for adoption for expectant mothers. Of the $22 paid to renew the plate, $20 goes to organizations supported by Choose Life, Inc. and the plate's success has brought in more than $6 million. What has brought on the lawsuits is that Choose Life, Inc. only supports organizations that do not perform, nor refer, nor counsel on abortions, and the Planned Parenthood and the ACLU have taken issue with that, claiming that any state that issues the Choose Life plate is endorsing one side of a debate -- the anti-abortion side.
The argument being used to counter that is that the Choose Life plate is a matter of free speech -- no one is compelled to buy and display the plate. As such, states aren't at liberty to curtail it, and Planned Parenthood is free to get a Choose Choice plate approved. The Supreme Court has declined to hear any of the cases and create a federal standard, so states are left to decide on their own and that has created a mix of approvals, rejections, and ongoing court hearings. Hawaii does have a Respect Choice license plate, but uptake has been so low that it's in danger of being rescinded. Tennessee, on the other hand, rejected the Choose Choice license plate, and that decision was upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The question is really whether this is about the First Amendment and free speech, or a religious and political debate. Choose Life, Inc. and its supporters have undeniably polarizing stance.
"We are free to speak," said Elizabeth Rex, president of the New York-based Children First Foundation, "whether what we say is controversial or not." But that isn't true when it comes to license plates. When the Knights of Columbus wanted a specialty plate in Arkansas, they were turned down because the state was afraid the KKK would want one as well. A Christian school official in Vermont wanted the vanity plate "ROMANS5" and was turned down. When Colorado added another surcharge to the cost of its Breast Cancer Awareness specialty plate, the organization that got the plate approved had it pulled from circulation.
Clearly, license plates are not uncensored forums.
Nevertheless, Choose Life, Inc. is by no means the only religious-affiliated plate available. Florida has a Family Values plate that supports the Sheridan House Family Ministries, a thoroughly religious organization. Ohio has a One Nation Under God plate supported by a charity focused on keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Pennsylvania has a Knights of Columbus plate -- those same knights that were rejected in Arkansas. And there are many, many more.
The result is that the debate remains muddled enough to give both sides, Choose Life, Inc. and Planned Parenthood, enough legal room to pose credible court cases until the Supreme Court decides to weigh in.
The best solution for both sides in the interim could be the one that's been around even longer than license plates: bumper stickers. They don't have the gravitas of license plates but you can make up for that with sheer volume, they can say anything you want, and they come in every color imaginable.
Good luck getting them off your car, though.