Beall: Don't "Choose Life"

BY MIKE BEALL | JUNE 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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For $50, the Iowa Department of Transportation will fix you up with an eye-catching black and gold University of Iowa Hawkeyes specialty license plate. For $25 you can get a specialty plate promoting cancer awareness, your military service, the other state universities, or various other organizations. These plates are fairly common and an easy source of revenue for the state.

A new plate that you may be seeing soon is much more controversial and has no place being issued by a government agency. After a decade-long battle that gained very little press, Iowa Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, succeeded in pushing for a “Choose Life” specialty plate. The plate pictures a cartoonish drawing of two children with the phrase “Choose Life” beneath them. This is the only controversial, political license plate that the DOT currently sells.

Iowa Right to Life claims that the license plates are not meant to be controversial and simply are being used to spread a message. This is preposterous; it uses a government institution to push a political position, and, of course, an abortion-theme license plate is going to be controversial. If this was simply about spreading a political message, I would suggest Iowa Right to Life sell bumper stickers.  Spreading political messages is what bumper stickers are for. 

Far from being innocuous, using the DOT is a strategy meant to incite controversy. Seeing messages on the back of a car hardly spreads a position or persuades anyone to take the same position. Seeing the message on a state-approved license plate turns it into controversy, controversy gets more news coverage, which is what Iowa Right to Life likely wants.    

It seems unlikely that the plate will be taken off the market so soon after its inauguration, but if the DOT cannot get rid of this new specialty plate, somebody ought to create a pro-choice plate in the interest of fairness. The process for doing so is fairly straightforward.

According to the DOT director, any organization that meets the guide specialty-plate guidelines will have its plate accepted.

To apply for a specialty plate, an application must not be sexually or ethnically degrading, and it cannot serve as advertising for a business. Furthermore, 500 paid applications from individuals must be received before the license plate is official.

There are two problems with this plan to level the playing field, however. First, it took almost an entire decade for Iowa Right to Life to finally get its license plate approved. It is likely that a pro-choose plate would have just as much difficulty. 

Second, license plates are not the appropriate forum for a political debate. If abortion is to be debated on plates, then how long is it before debates on gun control, war, immigration, gay rights, and taxes get a similar platform?

Political positions need to be kept off government-issued property, lest the DOT be overrun by politics.

Bumper stickers were invented for a reason; use them.

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