Ark. lawyer sues state over anti-abortion license plates

It violates free-speech, equal protection rights, defense attorney says

November 29, 2003|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BENTONVILLE, Ark. - This fall, Arkansas began selling specialty license plates decorated with a crayon-like drawing of two children and the words "Choose Life." It was the latest in a string of coordinated victories for a Florida-based organization, Choose Life Inc., whose Web site says its license plate campaign allows drivers to "speak up for the unborn."

Supporters say the plates are intended to encourage women facing crisis pregnancies to choose adoption over abortion; critics call the plates a subversive message and an inappropriate use of government-sponsored space.

Doug Norwood, a prominent defense attorney here in northwest Arkansas, wanted to sue the state, but feared he would have trouble asserting legal standing by proving that he had been personally harmed by the law that created the plates. For that, he needed an ally, and in Tamara Brackett, he found one.

Norwood had been Brackett's lawyer for two years. She had been charged with burglary, and after a plea bargain sent her to a probation program for first-time offenders, the lawyer had an assignment for her.

This month, he dispatched Brackett to a state Department of Revenue office near her home. Under his order, she marched confidently to a clerk and asked to buy a specialty license plate for her car. Brackett told the clerk she wanted the plate to read "Choose Choice."

The clerk replied, as Norwood said she would, that Arkansas did not offer such a plate. That was enough for Norwood. On Nov. 10, on behalf of Brackett, he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, seeking to "vindicate rights secured to her by the First and Fourteenth Amendments" - her rights to free speech and equal protection.

"The state of Arkansas has opened a state-created forum to one viewpoint alone in the ongoing public controversy over abortion," the lawsuit read.

It is the latest legal challenge to stem from what has quietly become one of the most contested venues in the abortion debate: the nation's highways.

With Choose Life Inc.'s steady guidance, Arkansas became the eighth state to approve the license plates. Anti-abortion activists are attempting to get the plates approved in 30 more states, said the organization's spokesman, Russ Amerling. Nearly 50,000 plates have been sold nationwide. Most have been sold in Florida, which in 2000 became the first state to sell the plates.

The Arkansas plates cost $35 apiece. Nationwide, the plates have raised more than $2 million for programs that provide crisis counseling to pregnant women - provided the programs do not discuss the option of abortion.

"We want to let women see all the options," Amerling said. "She's getting plenty of counsel, unfortunately, and advice to have an abortion. We're just trying to level the playing field."

The license plates have been met with a series of challenges, with mixed results.

Florida's plate has survived at least two lawsuits. But in July, a federal judge blocked Louisiana from issuing "Choose Life" plates. And a judge in South Carolina determined last year that the plates were a "clear manifestation of viewpoint discrimination."

At the center of the Arkansas challenge is Norwood, 49, who is adding another chapter to a storied career.

Norwood may be many things - including a publicity hound, his critics charge - but he is not a bleeding-heart liberal. Instead, he is a nondrinking churchgoer who isn't sure he supports abortion rights in some circumstances. Armed with something of a libertarian streak, he has represented, among others, a Ku Klux Klan leader he says was unfairly accused of petty crimes.

In the case of the license plates, Norwood said, he believes that "Choose Life" is a political statement that does not belong on a state-issued license plate, not when the "other side" has no hope of receiving the same consideration.

"All I'm saying is that in this country, everybody should have equal footing," he said. Brackett, the named plaintiff in the case, could not be reached.

Norwood appears to have the law on his side, according to Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe, who was asked by a state legislator to interpret the new law. In a nonbinding opinion issued in August, Beebe cited court decisions from other states saying that state legislatures cannot discriminate against a political viewpoint. Beebe said Arkansas' new law violates the rights of free speech, equal protection and due process guaranteed in the U.S. and state constitutions.

Advocates for the plates say the logic is faulty, and say the plates are more about promoting adoption than they are about fighting abortion rights.

"Yes, it is a political issue. Yes, there are pro-life overtures," said Arkansas Rep. Marvin Parks, the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives and a sponsor of the legislation that created the plates.

"But the reality is that people have the option to invest some of their money into funds that would go to help a young lady facing a crisis pregnancy with some very difficult choices before her."

Parks said advocates for abortion rights aren't prohibited from getting a plate - they just don't have the votes in the Legislature to pull it off, and they know it. "Nobody is boxing them out of the arena to participate in the process or infringe on their right to free speech," he said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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