Driving the message home

March 19, 2006 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

A Federal court has ruled that Tennessee (my home state and where I will soon be a resident again) can issue a license tag that contains the words “Choose Life.” A legal fight about the state legislature’s power to do this has been going on since 2002, and in the news story about the ruling, both sides have claimed the First Amendment supports their point of view and what the other side is doing violates the First Amendment.

The controversy got me – as one who is fond of the First Amendment – to thinking . . .

As an advocate of expanding the rights the First Amendment protects, I think the court’s decision was generally correct. If the state legislature wants to issue state license tags that say “Choose Life,” I think it should be able to do so. I also think that a state legislature should be able to issue tags that say “Withdraw from Iraq” or “Eat More Chicken” or “Impeach Bush” or “I’m a Religious Wingnut” or just about anything else it wants to say. As a college professor, of course, I draw the line at “Abolish Tenure,” which is about as perverse, sadistic and anti-social as you can get. (You have to draw a line somewhere.)

It now takes an act of the legislature to get a message on a license tag. It should be much easier than that. A citizen should simply be able to order up whatever message he or she wants without the approval of the clowns who usually inhabit state Capitol buildings. That would make driving up and down the interstate far more interesting and fun.

People can buy the all-about-me vanity plates, I know, but these are not very interesting. Besides, I like my words spelled out.

The newspaper where I read about the court’s ruling (yes, a real newspaper, printed on newsprint) carried an artist’s rendering of what the “Choose Life” tag might look like. It had the face of a fat, laughing baby behind the words. A quarter of a century ago, our only child – a son – was as cute a baby as had ever graced a maternity ward, particularly with his head of bright red hair. He could have been pictured on that license plate – except for the fact that he was colic and spent the first three months of his life screaming at the top of his lungs. (He’s fine now; his parents never recovered, however.)

So, instead of my son’s picture at that stage of life, I thought I might want another picture to go with my “Choose Life” tag – say, a picture of Tennessee’s electric chair. Now there is a “Choose Life” tag I would be proud to have on the back of my truck. I know the “Choose Life” thing is supposed to be about abortion, but I should be able to interpret it any way I want.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about the state of Tennessee, which won its case but had to endure a few condescending slings and arrows from both the majority opinion of the judges who ruled in its favor. Those judges wrote that although “this exercise of government one-sidedness with respect to a very contentious political issue may be ill-advised,” they couldn’t find anything to prevent it.

How silly. Legislatures all over the place take up contentious issues all the time. They sometimes even pass laws about these issues. What the judges should have said was that this issue didn’t merit all the time and effort it took to get it to court but that it was the state’s First Amendment right to waste everybody’s time if it wanted to.

The lone dissenting judge came closer to getting at the real issue when he wrote:

“If the KKK and Nazi Party are able to pull together 1,000 proud, dues-pay members who wish to display such license plats on their cars . . . they are entitled to do so the same as the Son of Confederate Veterans, Penn State Alumni, antique aficionados and member of pro-life and pro-choice organizations.”

Hear, hear.

I’m for a license tag that says “Support the First Amendment.” And the picture of the happy baby to go along with it wouldn’t hurt either.

Read more about journalism and issues facing the profession at JPROF.com.

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