(CN) - The 7th Circuit upheld Illinois' rejection of "Choose Life" specialty license plates, ruling that the state can refuse all abortion-related specialty plates to avoid the appearance that the government endorses any stance on the issue.
Choose Life Illinois challenged the state's rejection of its specialty plates after the group collected more than 25,000 signatures from Illinois residents who said they were interested in buying the plates - far exceeding the minimum requirement.
But Secretary of State Jesse White refused to issue the plates without legislative approval.
When the proposal died in subcommittee, Choose Life turned to the federal court for relief, claiming the state had to issue the plates once the group met the statutory requirements. The General Assembly's refusal to approve the "Choose Life" plates constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment, the group claimed.
The district court agreed and ordered the Legislature to issue the plates, but stayed its judgment pending appeal.
The General Assembly responded by amending the law to require "express prior legislative approval" for specialty plates. The secretary said the messages on specialty license plates do not violate the First Amendment because they are the government's own speech, "not a private or a mixture of government and private speech," the ruling states.
A three-judge panel disagreed.
"Specialty license plates implicate the speech rights of private speakers, not the government-speech doctrine," Judge Sykes wrote. While the state can't discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, the court ruled, it "may control access to the forum based on the content of a proposed message - provided that any content-based restrictions are reasonable."
Thus, the court upheld the state's decision to exclude the entire subject of abortion from its specialty-plate program.
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