Opinion and Forefront

WOUDENBERG: No one is entitled to specialty license plates

March 31, 2012

Anita Y. WoudenbergFirst it was the In God We Trust license plate. Now it’s an Indiana Youth Group specialty plate. We Hoosiers can’t seem to leave the license plate issue alone.

Licenses plates are required by our Legislature. We are obligated by law to put them on our cars or suffer the consequences. But the way some of us are carrying on, you’d think we’re being forced to support a cause we don’t agree with or denied the right to support a cause with which we do.

Back in 2007, the In God We Trust plate raised a big stink because, according to the ACLU, the government was sponsoring it. Unlike some specialty plates, Hoosiers could get the plate at no additional cost (ironically, if extra had been charged to give to a religious charity, they’d probably have claimed a separation of church and state violation).

Now we’ve got gay rights activists enraged because the Indiana Youth Group—a gay rights group for kids—just lost their specialty plate due to a contract violation. Yet even without the contract violation, they aren’t entitled to their plate.

Our government is free to support whatever message it wants to support.

When you think about it, license plates are a lot like postage stamps. A birthday card might be addressed in our own handwriting and contain a private message, but it isn’t going anywhere without a government-issued postage stamp.

Stamps should be able to have whatever Congress wants on them. If it wants to encourage holiday festivities with Hanukkah or Christmas themes, or promote Heart Health or Marvel Super Heroes, that’s its prerogative. While I may have to buy a stamp, nothing is making me support someone else’s theology or root for Captain America. I can always just support Lady Liberty or the flag. Or if I really am feeling unsupportive, I can just use an electronic postage dispenser to get a white sticker that says 45 cents (or whatever the rate is these days).

The same for license plates. We can’t leave home without ’em (at least, not legally). If the government wants to use them to promote a message, great. I can always go with the standard white on blue. But if I want to support the Indianapolis Colts or Habitat for Humanity, I can do that, too. The Legislature likes some of the same things I do. And it helps collect money for my favorite things by charging a bit extra. Convenient? Yes. Entitled? No.

Of course, this raises the issue of the propriety of government promoting one message over another. If our legislators are going to let Hoosiers be involved, shouldn’t we get to choose the message? Why can’t I have a plate say what I want it to say just as much as the next guy?

As much as we don’t like to admit it, our Legislature is allowed to pick sides. It does so all the time. It decides meth or smoking is bad news and regulates it (or its components). It decides that over 70 mph on the interstate is too fast and penalizes you if you demonstrate your disagreement on the road. It gets to do this, because it is responsible for promoting the health and welfare of Hoosiers. Schools. Families. Jobs. Drinking water. You name it, it gets to pick a side and decide how much of what is allowed.

We may disagree on how or where it draws that line. But that it gets to is really not in question. And inevitably, it’s going to support issues and causes that it thinks will advance that responsibility.

So if our elected representatives want to promote state universities or put Kids First, let them. They’re just doing their job, drawing the line where they think it should be, and letting Hoosiers be part of promoting that message.

For everything else, there’s a bumper sticker.•

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Woudenberg practices constitutional law at The Bopp Law Firm in Terre Haute. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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