Tag, you're it

| July 03, 2013

Among the reprobates, scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells who will appear before judges later this year, there will be a surprise plaintiff: a North Carolina license plate. Cheaters, chiselers and embezzlers hauled into court we can understand, but a license tag?

Actually, this license plate doesn't exist yet, and to further complicate matters, there are two plates at issue here. The second one doesn't exist, either. The story began in 2011, when, long before Moral Monday had started, our state's General Assembly decided to issue a "Choose Life" license plate. That's the first unusual wrinkle—the legislators wanting to issue a plate, instead of a club or an alumni association doing so.

The ACLU filed suit to block the pro-life plate, claiming that it was partisan and violated the free speech provision in the First Amendment. Specifically, the legislators, many of them lawyers, were in violation of a legal principle called "viewpoint discrimination," wherein the government promotes only one side of an argument. The U.S. District Court issued a temporary injunction against the plate in November 2011. Last December, they agreed with the ACLU that North Carolina was taking a partisan stand on the question of a woman's right to choose.

The state refunded the 375 people who had each paid $25 for the plate, but then five months ago, Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican from McDowell County, announced that he would push for an appeal of the District Court decision. That's interesting, as I'd assumed the Republican tag affixed to Gillespie's name meant he belongs to the party that promises government that's both smaller and less intrusive in our lives. Then why can't he let this one go?

I might also be wrong about some figures that I remember from the papers: North Carolina ranks 12th highest in poverty among the 50 states, for instance, and has the fifth highest unemployment level. And as best as my mind remembers, we land at No. 48 in per-pupil spending and, coincidentally, at 48 in teachers' average salaries. Is the humble license plate worth the time and money being spent in its pursuit, while other matters—perhaps a tad more weighty—seem by their very numbers to call for attention?

The ACLU and others have suggested a pro-choice plate stating something like "Trust Women," but every time it comes up in the Legislature—six times so far—it's been defeated. In our overly litigious and grind-to-a-halt fractious society, I'd like to say to the legislators: Either give in or give up. Issue both pro-life and pro-choice plates, or forget the deckchairs aboard our own Titanic and get back to work.

In the meantime, while you and I are idling in traffic, we might glance at the license plate in front of us and notice at the left side a picture of a turtle, a lighthouse, a college logo—or it might have this simple message from the judge: "Watch this space."

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