Keep Your Causes Off Your License Plates, Assholes

As we increasingly cluster in ideologically like-minded niches, our experiences with social media become more like highlight video. Some obnoxious buddy is saying BOOYA! about something on DailyKos, or someone else is demanding that we please trade the idiot president to another country for two prospects and cash.

Chances are, this week your friends had an opinion when U.S. District Court Judge James Fox ruled this week that North Carolina's proposed "Choose Life" license plates are unconstitutional. And, more than likely, your friends didn't really know what they were cheering or castigating, because "issues" license plates are a ridiculous conceptual mess.

You have probably seen a "Choose Life" license plate before. Over two dozen states offer them, and most feature the same cloyingly shitty crayon drawing of a little boy and a little girl. They're meant to suggest that the plates were designed by children, so young that they haven't even had the misfortune of discovering talent yet. This is innocence unsullied; you'd have to be some kind of monster to want to quash whatever life drew this twee little thing.

But while it's perfectly reasonable to find the license plate objectionable because it's so godawful looking, the legal arguments against or for it get really complicated. For instance, you or a friend might have railed against the plate's existence as an abuse of government speech, with the government advocating one position at the expense of many others.

Unfortunately, this is how government works. Acts of government are an advocacy of policy in some way: a law was passed or wasn't, and in the process one idea succeeded or failed. Further, because the policy exists, government has incentives to help citizens understand it. This is why PSAs exist and you can see signs telling you not to litter. More often than not, the government advocacy is broadly agreed-upon on. It's to effectuate existing policy, not to lobby for future intensification of it. You're told not to litter, not because the government is planning to one day make you wear an official "no-messes" suit in state parks but because shitting up the place with Burger King commemorative Hobbit cups is ugly, and everyone has to pay to clean it later.

The effectuating-policy argument has helped "Choose Life" plates get past legal challenges in the past. All states have an interest in ensuring the existence of safe and successful adoption programs, for instance, so there's nothing especially menacing about a government saying, "Yo, check that out." This is what many supporters claimed "Choose Life" plates do. For instance, in signing the law in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush said, "It's a pretty tag and it says 'Choose Life' and it's for adoption. If people want to politicize that, they'll politicize anything."

The problem with "Choose Life" is that you have to be familiar with current political debates to draw the adoption conclusion first, and it also calls into mind a lot of amorphous and contradictory ideas, which make the message either bewilderingly useless or disingenuous. For example, the plate is very popular in Florida, and it tends to get handwaved away as an anodyne advocacy of the "culture of life." We all like life, right? Who wouldn't? You gotta be some kind of asshole to go around dissing life.

Florida is also a death penalty state, though, and many of the fans of the license plate are also fans of killing people via due process. That demographic also overlaps with supporters of the state's Stand Your Ground legislation, which celebrates life so much that it removed citizens' obligation to flee potentially mortally threatening situations and instead allows them to lawfully kill another person. Then there's the state economy, which is heavily boosted by numerous military bases. One, MacDill, houses CENTCOM. It's a nice place, and many of the people who work there are really fun to spend time with; however, Florida likes the jobs they bring, and many of those jobs boil down to "figuring out how to kill people, then killing them, as necessary."

As a result, the exhortation "Choose Life" is a weaselly one. If it instead said, "Support Adoption," it would be tough to argue with, because the message and its link to existing government interests would be self-evident. But the State of Florida has profound legal, economic and personal-freedom interests in supporting an anti-life attitude in other cases, muddying its cheerful "ain't alive stuff grand?" crayon picture.

Without any direct relationship between the plate and a specific agency, its purpose becomes the advancement of an ideological argument within partisan politics. Any doubt as to its messaging is removed when you consider that North Carolina's proposed plate law (like Florida's) would have prohibited any proceeds from the plates' sales from going to groups that perform abortions or present it as an option for pregnant women seeking counseling. In short, choose life, but by all means, we encourage you to do so from a menu that has no other options on it.

Because the First Amendment does not apply to state speech, the next natural defense of "issues" license plates is that they reflect private speech. Ostensibly, the state acts like a kind of null entity, an à la carte menu from which you choose how to voice your support and for what. Plates don't represent the state's advocacy but rather one of a series of menu items for citizens' advocacy. Pro-choice or pro-life arguments thus flow from your actions as a citizen-consumer.

This is the interpretation Judge Fox ruled on in the case of North Carolina's "Choose Life" plate, and he judged it unconstitutional because pro-choice options were unavailable. This was a case where "viewpoint discrimination" reacted passively to the likelihood of unequal governmental support of a cause. North Carolina's GOP-dominated General Assembly defeated amendments to add "Trust Women. Respect Choice" license plate alternatives. If you wanted to select a license plate that very plainly embraced a partisan take on an issue as complex and compelling as women's reproductive rights, you—somewhat fittingly—had no choice at all.

What's most interesting about Fox's ruling is the can of worms it fails to address. As a Reagan appointee (recommended by Jesse Helms), he can hardly be considered some liberal firebrand. But by calling attention to a failure to give a voice to major parties to the reproductive rights debate, he also tacitly points up how many other parties are omitted. This applies to virtually any political topic. Viewpoint discrimination is endless; each side of the political divide perceives it.

The First Amendment secures a place even for unpopular attitudes, and a free speech justification for allowing license-plate advocacy demonstrates how limited that speech really is. The approval process for plates requires petitioning and legislative action. It effectively ensures that only popular interpretations on major issues—or only popular issues at all—wind up addressed on a license plate.

Consider gay adoption, which still repels people and sends them to the worryin' rocker and clutching at the "what's to be done?" hanky. Think, too, about single gay men adopting young boys—a scenario that sends bigots back to the erroneous belief that gays (and not straight people) are likelier to be sex offenders and only want children for abuse and gay indoctrination. At a time when "Choose Life" is sometimes rationalized as only a pro-adoption statement in places like Florida and North Carolina, imagine the almost total impossibility of citizens' securing their right to support single gay adoption in those states and be allowed to give voice to their private speech.

If protecting private speech is a valid pretext for creating a "balanced" menagerie of license plates, then the interests of fairness would suggest almost no end to plate messaging. As counterpoint to "Save the Everglades," someone surely deserves the right to say "Fuck 'Em!" That Challenger/Columbia license plate seems mighty dated already. Where's my, "GET OVER IT!" or "No, This Is Not Your Generation's 'Where Were You During The JFK Assassination?' Moment"?

Hell, at some point, any message of sufficient complexity will start crowding out slots for license numbers, until multiple residents are driving around with a "27" license, forcing cops to have to vaguely describe the pictures or words they can make out on the plates. Think of the APBs you could hear. "It was a Sand Hill Crane, REPEAT, Sand Hill Crane. It was also wearing the crew uniform for Dale Earnhardt's #3 car and standing in front of the words NEVER FORGET." After a day, a police scanner would pay for itself.

Which brings up the most elegant solution of all: maybe license plates should just be a plainly visible official means of identifying your goddamn car.

Image by Jim Cooke.