Governor Timothy M. Kaine issued the following statement today regarding his signing of legislation permitting the issue of special license plates including plates bearing the legend “Choose Life” (SB 817):
“Virginia has a long-standing program that allows individuals to customize their state-issued license plates for a fee. Subject to certain Department of Motor Vehicle regulations to prohibit obscenity or other impropriety, Virginians have the ability to purchase vanity plates that specify a combination of letters and numbers of their choosing. Or, people can purchase specialty license plates that demonstrate an affinity with a cause, message, organization, or institution. The message conveyed on specialty plates must be approved by the General Assembly and are only issued after at least 350 motorists pay the necessary fee.
“Over the years, the Virginia legislature has approved more than 200 specialty license plates, including those indicating membership of military units, supporters of colleges””both in-state and out-of-state””and membership of specific clubs, organizations, or informal groups. All these plates are voluntary””motorists may choose to purchase a special plate but are not required to do so.
“Some specialty plates are comical in tone: ‘Parrotheads.’ Some are more narrowly-focused: ‘Greyhound Adoption.’ Some plates have the potential to excite controversy: ‘Sons of Confederate Veterans.’ Still others have a political, social, or religious resonance: ‘Save the Bay,’ “˜Patriot,’ “˜Peace,’ “˜Fight Terrorism,’ “˜Friend of Tibet,’ and “˜In God We Trust.’
“In some cases, the General Assembly has allowed the assessment of an extra fee above the added cost of the specialty plate itself and transferred the money raised by the fee to the organization supporting the plate’s message.
“Because Virginians””like all Americans””regard freedom of expression among our highest values, courts in the Commonwealth and elsewhere have reviewed license plate programs to ensure that government regulation of plate messages does not discriminate based on the viewpoint expressed by a particular group. For example, a Virginia decision to prohibit use of a club logo including the Confederate Flag on an approved license plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans was struck down as unlawful discrimination against the free speech rights of the organization. And, the decision of the South Carolina legislature to approve a license plate with a ‘Choose Life’ message””while refusing to approve a plate proposed by Planned Parenthood””was struck down as discrimination based on the content of the speech because it preferred one side of a political debate over another.
“This year, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill approving certain specialty license plates””including a plate bearing the label “˜Choose Life.’ People who voluntarily choose to purchase this license plate will pay the extra fee assessed for all specialty plates and an additional assessment that will be transferred to support the work of crisis pregnancy centers in Virginia. 23 other states offer their citizens the opportunity to purchase “Choose Life” license plates.
“I sign this legislation today in keeping with the Commonwealth’s longtime practice of approving specialty plates with all manner of political and social messages. Furthermore, if Planned Parenthood””an organization that is already a recipient of state budget funds””or another similar organization ever chooses to seek a specialty license plate in Virginia, I believe the Constitution would require the state to approve that plate to protect against any viewpoint discrimination.”