By Denny Walsh
A Sacramento federal judge has permanently barred California
from issuing new vehicle license plates that promote the interests
of private, nonprofit organizations.
The section of state law granting the Legislature "unfettered
discretion" as to which organizations will benefit from
special-interest bills authorizing plates is unconstitutional,
U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. ruled.
"No standard governs the decision who may speak,"
Burrell wrote in an order issued Friday. "The First Amendment
does not allow the government to use a standardless forum
to select private speakers, because the government may use
such a forum to present views it finds acceptable while denying
access to those wishing to express less favored or more controversial
Burrell took the rare step of directing that his 28-page
order be published, which means it will appear in case-law
books and carry some persuasive value to other courts.
"No decision has yet been made on how to respond to
this," Tom Dresslar, spokesman for state Attorney General
Bill Lockyer, said Tuesday.
The permanent injunction was sought by Women's Resource Network,
a California nonprofit organization that urges adoption over
abortion. It sued in April, after the Legislature refused
to pass a law allowing the creation of a plate displaying
the message "Choose Life."
The organization's attorney, Michael Millen, said Tuesday
he and his client are happy with the result.
"We believe it's a complete victory," he said.
"The judge said the Legislature can't pick and choose
who speaks. It's a great win for everybody who cares about
freedom of speech.
"From this day forward, if there's going to be a process
for special-interest license plates, the Women's Resource
Network gets a seat at the table, just like any other nonprofit."
A bill - AB 477 - that takes approval power away from the
Legislature and "sets up a neutral-standards process
within the Department of Motor Vehicles" has passed the
Assembly and is pending before the Senate, Millen said.
He said several special-interest license bills pending in
the Legislature were voided by Burrell's ruling. They include
plates commemorating the late civil rights leader the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr. and farm worker champion Cesar Chavez,
Millen said. They also include, among others, plates promoting
animal welfare, AIDS education and the Amber Alert system
on missing children, he said.
Of the five private, nonprofit plates that fit the narrow
category defined in Burrell's order and were previously approved
by the Legislature, only a "Yosemite" license plate
has been issued by DMV to drivers. The other four applicants
each failed to come up with the required minimum 7,500 motorists
who would commit to purchasing the plates.
Under Burrell's ruling, the DMV is able to continue issuing
the "Yosemite" plates.
It is one of the state's most popular, with 84,000 sold and
41,000 currently registered. The plate costs $50 initially
and $40 a year to renew, generating sales of approximately
$2.2 million a year.
Of that, the DMV takes $200,000 for administrative expenses
and slightly more than $1 million to help fund plates bearing
a message promoting protection of the environment. The Yosemite
fund receives nearly $1 million that goes for park upkeep.