First Place Award for General Excellence, Catholic Press Association, 2013-2016

Editorial
Put ‘Choose Life’ Plates on Road

It’s hard to see how anyone can object to the charming, colorful drawing on the Children First Foundation’s license plate, or to its positive goal of encouraging adoptions.

Yet object—and object and object—is just what New York state has been doing for more than 10 years by refusing to issue a specialty plate to the foundation because its crayon-drawn slogan, “Choose Life,” is not, apparently, politically correct.

Never mind that sports fans can order a license plate touting their favorite team, or that various organizations and causes including organ donors and animal lovers, can do the same. But “Choose Life?” Not on your life.

In fact, in 2004 the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles suspended all new custom plates in a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move just so they wouldn’t be forced to accept Choose Life. That means even such worthy sentiments and causes as a 9/11 memorial plate and a Cure Childhood Cancer plate have been turned down—with some 280 organizations blocked in all.

And in refusing these plates, the perennially cash-strapped state is also refusing the millions of dollars in revenue that goes with them, which comes from fees car owners pay to get the plates and to renew them each year. That revenue, we might add, would come in without having to raise taxes.

Meanwhile, 29 other states have accepted the foundation’s plates, most recently neighboring New Jersey, where the foundation won a federal lawsuit in the state’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

New York, however, continues to claim that the Choose Life plates advocate a “politically sensitive” and “emotionally charged” viewpoint, even fretting they could spark outbreaks of “road rage.”

Dr. Elizabeth Rex, who founded the foundation with her husband, is rather astonished at New York’s stance. “We thought it would be easy” to get the plates approved, she said. “It’s called freedom of speech.”

Taking the battle to court, the foundation won case after case while the state continued to challenge those decisions on appeal. A year ago, with the case now in federal court, a U.S. District Court judge in Syracuse again ruled in favor of the foundation, saying that the state Department of Motor Vehicles infringed on the foundation’s right to free speech and ordering the DMV to allow the “Choose Life” plate on the road.

That should have been Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s cue to lift the moratorium on new custom plates, allowing the Choose Life and other worthwhile plate applications to proceed.

But Cuomo, like Gov. George Pataki before him, chose to once again appeal.

On Dec. 11, oral arguments in that appeal are scheduled before New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals; representing the foundation, pro bono, is the Alliance Defending Freedom. The foundation also has a raft of endorsements from organizations and prominent individuals, including Cardinal Dolan, supporting its effort.

The governor has another chance. He can settle this case now, saving the state money pursuing a legal battle that evidence indicates will be fruitless, while at the same time doing the right thing.

Judge Neal McCurn, in his 2011 ruling, wrote that by allowing specialty plates, the Department of Motor Vehicles “created a public forum where it allows the display of messages, slogans, logos and toll-free numbers for advocacy groups. The state cannot permit free speech for some but not for all.”

It cannot and should not. It’s time to end this fight.

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