NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge ruled yesterday that the state's "Choose Life" license plate was unconstitutional, but he declined to rule on whether Tennessee's entire specialty-plate program was flawed.
U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell, basing his ruling on the reasoning in similar cases in other states, wrote that the state could not promote just one viewpoint in the abortion debate.
"The result in this case would be the same if the statute authorized a 'Pro-Choice' license plate instead of the 'Choose Life' license plate," Campbell wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood challenged the plate in November, arguing that the state was not providing an equal opportunity for opposing viewpoints and thus violated First Amendment-protected freedom of speech.
The state and Tennessee New Life Resources, an anti-abortion group closely tied to Tennessee Right to Life, had argued that those who wanted a license plate in favor of abortion rights hadn't tried hard enough to get a specialty plate passed by the General Assembly.
ACLU attorney George Barrett said the judge's opinion "vindicated the Constitution."
Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, would not comment because the office had not seen the ruling.
Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, said his group wasn't surprised, and that the issue needed to go before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"I think that it's a great irony to claim to protect free speech by eliminating it," Harris said. "That's exactly what has occurred in this case."
"Choose Life" plates also have been challenged in other states. Anti-abortion groups are appealing a federal court ruling that banned South Carolina's Choose Life plate on free-speech grounds, while a federal judge last year found Louisiana's Choose Life tag unconstitutional because the state didn't offer an opposing view.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen decided to let the "Choose Life" plate become law without signing last year's bill. He has said that the whole specialty-plate program needed to be reviewed.
A portion of the extra $35 generated from sales of each "Choose Life" plate was to go to Tennessee New Life Resources.