"Choose-Life" License Plate Scheme Halted in Louisiana

Federal Court Finds Louisiana's Specialty License Plates Unconstitutional

New Orleans, LA

Yesterday, a federal judge ordered Louisiana to end the production of all specialty license plates, including "Choose Life" plates, finding that the State’s specialty license plates discriminate based on viewpoint. The Center for Reproductive Rights challenged the specialty plate scheme earlier this year, charging that it infringes on first amendment rights. By only permitting some viewpoints to be expressed on license plates, the Center argued, Louisiana was violating the free speech rights of those who disagreed with the Legislature on a variety of issues.

"We are grateful that the court is stopping Louisiana from trampling on the free speech rights of its citizens," said Simon Heller, Of Counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights and lead counsel on the case. "By allowing only one viewpoint to be expressed – for example, by creating a ‘Choose Life’ plate, but not a pro-choice one – the State was essentially silencing those who disagreed with the Legislature."

In the decision Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., of the Eastern District of Louisiana wrote, "State control of private speech is an insidious incursion into the bedrock of freedom. It must not be permitted and is not permitted under our Constitution."

Effective immediately, Louisiana is prohibited from producing any specialty license plates.

The "Choose Life" challenge in Louisiana was revived after the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an unusual order in January allowing the plaintiffs to amend their complaint in the trial court. The new order revises a previous order requiring the trial court to dismiss the case in its entirety. In August 2000, Judge Duval issued a preliminary injunction preventing distribution of the license plates. On March 29, 2002, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s order. In August 2002, the Fifth Circuit also denied a request for the full 15-member court to rehear the case and denied the Center’s petition to block the dismissal of the case until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether to review the case. The petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in December 2002.

Plaintiffs in Henderson v. Stalder include Russell J. Henderson, Doreen Keeler, Rabbi Robert H. Loewy, the Greater New Orleans Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, Planned Parenthood of Louisiana, and Reverend Eugene LaMothe. Mr. Heller of the Center for Reproductive Rights represents the plaintiffs along with Center cooperating attorney William Rittenberg, of the firm Rittenberg & Samuel in New Orleans.