Judge blocks anti-abortion license plates in North Carolina

WILMINGTON, North Carolina Mon Nov 28, 2011 6:12pm EST

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WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - A judge on Monday blocked the state of North Carolina from issuing voluntary vehicle license plates with an anti-abortion slogan on them.

U.S. District Judge James Fox granted a preliminary injunction sought by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. The ACLU argued in a lawsuit that issuing a plate saying "Choose Life," but not an abortion rights plate that read "Respect Choice" was a violation of free speech.

The anti-abortion plate was one of 79 specialty plates approved by the Republican-led legislature and signed by the Democratic governor. Residents can choose to have one of the specialty plates for $25, with $10 going to the state and $15 to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship.

The case came down to whether or not specialty license plates are considered a form of private speech, which would be protected by the First Amendment, or government speech, which would allow the legislature to control its own message.

Judge Fox's interpretation is that the driver of the vehicle is the one buying the license plate and spreading the message.

Plates similar to those in North Carolina are already made or have been approved by lawmakers in several states. Court challenges have resulted in a mixed outcome.

A federal court ruled the anti-abortion plates unconstitutional in South Carolina, a decision upheld on appeal. As a result, the state was forced to pay Planned Parenthood's $157,810 legal bill for challenging the plates.

If appealed, any ruling by North Carolina federal courts would go to the same appeals court as the South Carolina case.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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