lawsuit could end Tennessee specialty plates
Governor favors program based on court's
By Bonna de la Cruz
Holders of specialty license plates may have to give them up
if a court invalidates the popular program this fall, a Knoxville
The court case, involving the newly approved ''Choose
Life'' plate, could mean that Tennesseans no longer will get
their pick of 116 specialty tags, including ones for the Tennessee
Titans, the University of Tennessee, pet lovers and Radnor Lake.
That could put several groups that have plates
in financial distress, including the Friends of Great Smoky
Mountains National Park, Rep. Jamie Hagood, R-Knoxville, said
The Smoky Mountains plate the most popular
of the ones sold by the state, with nearly 20,000 on the road
raised about $600,000 this year, helping save hemlock
forests in the park from pesky aphids and sending park rangers
into classrooms to give lessons about nature.
Hagood and Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, are making
a last-ditch effort to save the license plate program but said
that without support from Gov. Phil Bredesen, their efforts
would fail before lawmakers adjourn, probably next week.
''We hope the governor reconsiders,'' Hagood said.
At issue is a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties
Union, which says that Tennessee's system of issuing specialty
license plates is unconstitutional and that the General Assembly
enjoys ''unbridled discretion'' to determine which speech the
state officially favors.
The lawmakers believe that their proposal to shift
approval of specialty plates to the state Safety Department
would depoliticize the process and result in dismissal of the
The bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate
Finance Committee today and in the House Budget Subcommittee
''The governor wants the license plate program
to die,'' Cohen said after meeting with Bredesen staffers earlier
Bredesen press secretary Lydia Lenker said the
governor wants to go in a different direction with legislation
on the plates program. He wants the court matter to be resolved,
she said, and to come back next year with a comprehensive bill
that reflects the recommendations of the courts.
''The governor is committed to protecting the
revenue streams for the Great Smoky Mountains, the Arts Commission
and other groups,'' she said.
Bredesen does not want plates to be used for political
causes and opposes the lawmakers' bill because it ''could very
likely result in a greater proliferation of political license
plates,'' Lenker said.
Hagood disagreed. She said the proposal put forth
by her and Cohen was based on models from other states that
had met court muster for being constitutional. It would have
minimum requirements, she said. The plates could not be obscene
and there would have to be financial commitments from a minimum
of 1,000 willing buyers.
Hagood said she was concerned about what would
happen if there is a negative court ruling in September or October
and the legislature is not able to enact another plate program
until next March at the earliest. It's possible, she said, that
already issued specialty plates could be invalidated either
all at once or when motorists' annual registrations expire.
Whether organizations would be able to continue raising money
is unclear, she said.
Uncertainty surrounding the program concerns its
''I hate to see all the good organizations that
benefit from this nice program get caught up in all this,''
said Jim Hart, executive director of the Friends of Great Smoky
He expressed confidence that Bredesen would not
do anything that inadvertently harms the park, noting that when
the group was founded in 1993, Bredesen made himself a charter
member with a $1,000 contribution.
The group gets $31 of each $35 fee paid for a
Smoky Mountains plate. If the program is reconfigured, there
is no guarantee the group would get as good a deal, Hart said.
''The plates raise money for parks and people
like to have them for self-expression about their love for the
Smokies,'' said Hart, who has a Smoky Mountains plate on his
Proceeds from many of the other specialty plates
benefit the Tennessee Arts Commission.
The commission counts on about $3.3 million each
year, which in turn is distributed through grants. These grants
benefit various arts endeavors, from artists-in-residence programs
in schools to the Nashville Symphony, said Rich Boyd, executive
director of the Tennessee Arts Commission.
''Especially in rural areas, we're the only exposure
some students have to the arts, since it's not included in the
core curriculum. We certainly hate to see those programs go
away,'' Boyd said.
Cohen said Bredesen's proposal for a new program
next year that could restrict political speech could be unconstitutional
and land the state back in court.
Lenker declined to respond.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American
Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the lawsuit was not
filed to abolish specialty plates.
''Our intent is to ensure the state does not engage
in viewpoint discrimination, which is what they do each time
they vote up or down a particular license plate message,'' Weinberg
Two efforts for a ''Pro-Choice'' plate have been
unsuccessful in the Senate.