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Choose Life plates coming to Illinois



‘Choose Life’ license plates coming to Illinois

By Rudolph Bush and Jeff Coen
Chicago Tribune staff reporters
Published January 23, 2007, 12:29 AM CST

In a decision likely to fuel controversy in the fight over abortion rights, a federal judge in Chicago has ordered the Illinois secretary of state's office to manufacture "Choose Life" license plates.

Ruling in favor of the anti-abortion group Choose Life Illinois, U.S. District Judge David Coar concluded that the state's nearly-60 specialty license plates amount to private speech protected under the 1st Amendment.

The state must begin producing "Choose Life" specialty plates by the end of February if it receives the requisite order of at least 850 plates, Coar ruled.

"Where the government voluntarily provides a forum for private expression, the government may not discriminate against some speakers because of their viewpoint," Coar wrote in an opinion issued Friday.

In 2004, Choose Life Illinois filed suit against Secretary of State Jesse White after twice failing to get the General Assembly to approve a specialty plate that would read "Choose Life".

The plate is intended to support adoption-service providers; none of the charitable proceeds from the plates will support anti-abortion political activities, said Dan Proft, a spokesman for Choose Life.

Among the plaintiffs in the case is Chicago Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, a board member of Choose Life. The plate has also received the support of Rev. Scott and Janet Willis, whose six children were killed in a 1994 highway crash traced to corruption under then-Secretary of State George Ryan.

David Druker, a spokesman for White, said White plans to ask Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan to appeal the decision.

He said the state has not decided whether it will seek a longer stay of Coar's ruling.

"We don't believe we have the authority without legislative approval to create specialty license plates," Druker said. "It's never passed so it's not like we're sitting here saying we won't do it."

In his opinion, Coar noted that under the state statute creating specialty plates, the secretary of state is not required to get legislative approval before issuing a plate.

According to Coar, the issue in the case boiled down to whether a specialty plate constituted an individual's personal speech or the speech of the government itself.

"It is undisputed that the reason for not approving the plate was because of the politically controversial nature of the message," Coar wrote.

The state's argument that the plate represented government speech didn't hold water because the state charges an extra fee to people who want to get them, Coar ruled.

"It would be surprising indeed for the state to require a private individual to create, apply for and pay for what would be considered government speech," Coar wrote.

Jill Stanek, a plaintiff and Choose Life member, heard about the court victory Monday while in Washington, D.C., for the March for Life, a national anti-abortion rally.

"It was quite the day to hear this," Stanek said. The march is held near the U.S. Supreme Court on the anniversary of the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized most abortions.

The plaintiffs brought the Illinois suit because they believed the state legislature was discriminating against them and their effort to have a an anti-abortion plate in Illinois, she said.

"The only chance we had of having a plate was to file suit against the secretary of state's office," she said. "I was so surprised. I really didn't expect this."

Stanek said her organization was always willing to see a pro-abortion rights plate introduced as well, and simply wanted the right to support their own plate.

Coar clearly recognized the controversial nature of his ruling and the possibility it could lead to calls for much more controversial messages.

The state "argues that if the 'Choose Life' message is permissible, then the state would also have to issue Ku Klux Klan or Nazi plates to avoid viewpoint discrimination. The issue of whether there may be any limits on the right to have messages displayed ... does not have to be decided in this case," he wrote.

Across the country, similar efforts at getting anti-abortion plates on the road have met with success.

Eighteen states have approved the plates, according to Choose Life Illinois.