The Wisconsin Assembly recently passed a bill that would allow Choose Life Wisconsin, Inc., a conservative non-profit group opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, to sell specialized Wisconsin license plates reading “Choose Life” with the footprint of a baby going left of the license plate number. This bill was not without controversy. Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Committee on Transportation contends that the license plates are political in nature and argues, “I don’t think that we should use our license plates to do political messaging or motivation kind of things . . . I think our license plates should be politically neutral.”
The plates are indeed a political statement, but this is no reason to oppose their manufacture. This is in fact a reason to support their manufacture, as they serve as an avenue for free speech. While it would be a different situation entirely if Choose Life Wisconsin had proposed this change to the standard-issue license plates, the proposed bill merely allows for the specialized plates to be an option for citizens. Therefore, the Choose Life license plates are protected as free speech, as they are not being forced on the Wisconsin populace but simply will express the views of private Wisconsin residents. However, organizations that wish to fundraise in this very public way must be subject to additional scrutiny to ensure that the public interest is being served.
The idea of political license plates as free speech is hardly unprecedented. License plates have been used as political statements and messaging for decades — perhaps the most famous example being the Washington D.C. license plate. The standard-issue D.C. plates read “Taxation without Representation” across the bottom — a political message referring to the fact that although citizens that live in the District of Columbia are subject to federal taxes, they are not given voting representation in Congress. Furthermore, President Barack Obama announced that he would be placing the “Taxation without Representation” license plates on all presidential limousines in January of this year to show his personal support for D.C. voting rights. And in regards to the specific pro-life plate that was proposed, 29 states already allow consumers the option of “Choose Life” license plates.
Furthermore, Choose Life Wisconsin is not requesting taxpayer money to fund production. President Julaine Appling reported that her organization has the private funds to manufacture the plates, thus requiring no tax dollars and making the claim that the plates are a government endorsement even less credible.
While political license plates are completely permissible, the Assembly may have jumped the gun in the sense that Choose Life Wisconsin’s tax-exempt status is still pending. The state must balance the protection of free speech with the protection of public interest, and this balance can only be achieved if organizations such as Choose Life Wisconsin are thoroughly vetted before their proposals are approved. Choose Life is a non-profit organization, but its tax-exempt status application is still under standard review by the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that the organization is providing a public service, as openly stated by Appling in hearing.
The investigation of non-profit organizations is especially poignant after the state had to rescind a $500,000 grant given to the non-profit organization United Sportsmen in August of 2013 because of the usage of state money for political gain and a “misunderstanding” over the group’s tax-exempt status, which was reported to be granted at hearing but was in fact still pending.
Ultimately, political plates have constitutional protection in the realm of free speech but political organizations that wish to fundraise in this way must be subject to additional scrutiny to ensure that the public interest is being served.
Madeline Sweitzer ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in political science and intending to major in journalism.