Will New York State Allow "Choose Life" License Plates?

8:40 PM, Nov 12, 2011   |    comments
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Choose Life license plate

By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Albany Bureau Chief

ALBANY - New York officials said Thursday they will review a federal court decision this week that orders the state to permit a "Choose Life" custom license plate after a decade-long battle with pro-life groups.

The Children First Foundation has been seeking the "Choose Life" license plate from the state since 2001, saying that other organizations had been able to obtain custom plates for their causes.

But the state fought the application and in 2004 put a moratorium on the issuance of any new custom license plates.

On Tuesday, Judge Neal McCurn in Syracuse ruled that New York's argument to block the plates is an infringement of First Amendment rights. He put a stay on the order, giving the state 30 days to appeal.

Jennifer Givner, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office, said the state is reviewing the decision and had no other comment. The office is representing the state in the case.

Elizabeth Rex, president of the Eastchester, Westchester County-based Children First Foundation, called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to drop any appeal and lift the ban on new custom plates.

The "Choose Life" license plate includes a crayon drawing of a yellow sun behind the faces of two smiling children. It is the logo of Choose Life, Inc., a Florida-based group that has sought the license plates in states.

"Now is the time for him to do what is right and protect freedom of speech for all New Yorkers," Rex said of Cuomo. "It's time to protect equal treatment under the law."

Cuomo's office declined comment Thursday.

In 2002, the DMV rejected the "Choose Life" license plate. In a letter at the time, the DMV said the license plate was rejected because "the message is patently offensive and could provoke outrage from members of the public,"according to court papers.

The letter from then-Deputy DMV Commissioner Jill Dunn added that the license plate could spur road rage and could be viewed as "patently offensive."

DMV wanted to preserve a viewpoint of neutrality, the court documents said.

McCurn ruled that the state's position is "unreasonable" because The Children First Foundation is a non-profit group and properly filed its application for a custom plate.

The flap has stalled efforts for other license plates to get approval. In 2006, then-Gov. George Pataki vetoed legislation that would have created 15 new license plates -- including a Sept. 11, 2001, remembrance, a "Westchester Way"
campaign to fund tourism and a "Cure Childhood Cancer" campaign.

There are more than 100 other custom-plate applications that have been blocked since the moratorium was put in place, pro-life groups said.

The state still has hundreds of custom license plates that can be ordered if drivers belong to certain organizations. There are plates for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the New York State United Teachers union and even the American Bowling Congress.

The state charges up to $60 for a new custom license plate and up $31.25 every year to keep the plate. To keep the plate, a driver must also remain a member of the organization, which usually charges a yearly membership fee.

The regulations required organizations to pay a $5,000 deposit for a specialized plate. The deposit was reimbursed when 200 sets of plates were sold.

Pro-life groups said 28 states have a "Choose Life" license plate, and the Children First Foundation, which focuses on promoting adoption services, is battling New Jersey to allow a "Choose Life" license plate there. Rex said three states also have pro-choice plates: Hawaii, Montana and Virginia.

Jeffrey Shafer, an attorney with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, contended the foundation has a strong case in New York. The Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-life group, is representing the foundation.

"I think if (the state) were to make the decision to take it on appeal, I think we would still prevail," Shafer said. "I think the facts of this case are clearly demonstrative of a First Amendment violation."

Tracey Brooks, president of the Albany-based Family Planning Advocates of New York State, a pro-choice group, said the state should investigate a group before it were to receive a custom license plate.

"In other states where such license plates are available, there are concerns that the funds raised have gone to organizations that provide inaccurate and coercive information," Brooks said in a statement.

"If this should go forward, New York state has to ensure that the money only goes to organizations that provide accurate information and non-judgmental health counseling."

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