Who would have thought the back of your car could become a free speech battleground?
Probably not the folks in Florida who, in 1987, started the trend of using state-issued specialty license plates to raise money for special causes.
Florida thought it was a good idea to honor the astronauts who had died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster by building a memorial to them. The state created and sold the special Challenger plate to fund it, raising millions of dollars for the project.
That triggered other states, including Indiana, to create a mechanism for state-issued license plates to become sources of revenue for projects beyond the states’ usual scope.
Now, for an extra fee of $40 beyond what it costs to license your vehicle, you can pick from more than 100 state-issued specialty license plates to express support for organizations that range from the National Rifle Association to the University of Notre Dame.
They’re popular: Almost a half-million Hoosiers bought specialty license plates last year, raising millions of dollars for their favorite causes.
The problem, though, arises when someone in power doesn’t like the cause. Last year, some conservative lawmakers in the Indiana legislature tried to eliminate a specialty plate for a gay youth group. Their push failed, but the Bureau of Motor Vehicles later stripped the plates from the group and two other organizations, saying they wrongly traded low-digit plates for contributions. Those groups contend the practice is common.
The Indiana legislature is likely to take up the issue in the next session but there are no easy answers. Specialty license plates have caused havoc in almost every state that has them.
In South Carolina, for example, the legislature recently approved a religious specialty license plate, with the slogan “I believe” and the image of a cross over a stained-glass window. The plate is being challenged in court by a group that promotes the separation of church and state.
Last year, the Arizona state legislature created a “Don’t Tread on Me” special license plate that raises money for tea party groups in the state. Some of the strongest protest came from tea party members themselves, who objected to the government bureaucracy created to dole out the dollars.
At least nine states have approved a Sons of Confederate Veterans' specialty plate, emblazoned with the Confederate flag. But several did so only after the group sued.
About half the states have approved the sale of “Choose Life” specialty license plates that benefit “pro-life” organizations that promote adoption over abortion. But those plates have been challenged in court in several states on First Amendment grounds, with opponents arguing “viewpoint discrimination” because there is no “pro-choice” alternative. The Supreme Court has let stand some state rulings barring production of the plates.
A central question in the debate: Are the state-issued specialty license plates government speech or private citizens’ speech?
The First Amendment applies to government efforts to restrict free speech; it doesn’t apply to the state itself. But if the state sanctions license plates for certain private organizations to broadcast their messages, is it the state talking? Or is just allowing some private citizens to talk while censoring others?
Those are some of the questions that the Indiana General Assembly will have to confront.
Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Who would have thought the back of your car could become a free speech battleground?
- News Columns
MIKE LUNSFORD: Remembering Mom a day after Mother’s Day
I don’t think there has been a day in the last eight years that I haven’t thought of my mom. Being all grown up with wrinkles to call my own doesn’t make me miss my parents any less.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Dowsers’ provide hope more than science
My grandfather was a man of God. Many times I saw him, his right hand held high in the air at his Wednesday night “prayer meeting,” praising the Lord before weeping at the altar on his knees. And yet, he was a “dowser,” a “diviner,” a “witcher” who, as a favor, would grab a forked sassafras stick and find water for some poor unfortunate whose well had gone dry.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
HAYDEN: 9-year-old lobbyist weighs in on school safety
Senate Bill 1 shot to the forefront last week, after it was amended by the House education committee with a provision that mandates every public school in Indiana would be required to have someone on staff armed with a loaded gun during school hours.
HAYDEN: Republican shift proving to be real
When a federal judge struck down key provisions of the state’s immigration law last week, it seemed anticlimactic.
LUNSFORD: A different kind of resurrection story, no foolin’
If you’ve had pets in your family long enough, it’s likely that you’ll see a miracle or two — a dog that couldn’t possibly have lived, but did; a cat that grew to 20 pounds after being born the runt of the litter; a goldfish that had been belly-up too many times to believe it could have survived another day.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Americans of Hispanic heritage becoming active in Republican party
When Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly decided earlier this year to put off a vote on locking the state’s same-sex marriage ban into the state constitution, it sent a signal that GOP leaders were evolving on the issue of marriage equality.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MIKE LUNSFORD: As of today, it’s unofficially spring
Despite the calendar telling us not to rush things, I think it is all right to go ahead and say spring is here. The Ides of March has passed, Easter is coming soon, and I have already been out in my yard with a rake, getting my boots muddy. It looks like spring to me.
Americans for Prosperity aim to browbeat GOP lawmakers
If you're outside the Indianapolis TV market, you may not have seen yet the Americans for Prosperity ad that demonizes the House Republicans for resisting Republican Gov. Mike Pence's tax cut plan.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Pence may find himself in a mess if he gets what he wants
Here’s a story to consider: A Republican governor with ties to the tea party and possible presidential ambitions decides he wants to slash the state’s income tax rate, but meets with massive resistance from legislative leaders from his own party.
Sounds like the scenario playing out in the Indiana Statehouse, right?
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
MIKE LUNSFORD: If handwriting is a window to my soul, I’m glad this is typewritten…
Somewhere in the mess I call my “archives,” I have most of my grade school report cards hidden away. I have kept them under wraps, because I want to be long gone when my children — or grandchildren — unearth them and discover that their self-righteous teacher of a dad was, in fact, a terrible student in his formative years.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Are legislators gambling with the future of gaming?
Indiana lawmakers have been debating whether to give the state’s casinos more financial incentives to compete with the shiny new gambling palaces popping up in Ohio.
MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’
The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Pot decriminalization bill dead, but reduced-punishment aspect still alive
In the flurry of activity at the Statehouse in recent weeks, I missed reporting some sad news for stoners: The legislation to decriminalize marijuana is dead.
MARK BENNETT: Great-niece to re-enact Paul Dresser’s musical legacy in Terre Haute show
People can be forgotten. Their lives end, time passes and memories fade.
Often, the only keepers of their legacies are family and friends, who tell and retell their stories, generation to generation.
For Paul Dresser, his fame burned strong enough as a turn-of-the-century, million-seller songwriter to preserve bits of his public notoriety.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The ‘lovely gift’ of a beech tree …
This is not the season that I usually write of trees, for besides a few pin oaks that hang on to the most stubborn of leaves, my woods stand bare and dormant and cold right now. My trees are patiently awaiting the green of spring that I feel, for some reason, is to arrive a little earlier this year than is usual.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: What to do with that $2 billion sitting around
We Hoosiers like to think of ourselves as special, but when it comes to the current debate in the Indiana Statehouse over the budget, we’re a lot like other states: Grappling with some post-recession questions about how to balance spending and taxes.
MARK BENNETT: An Olympic takedown
Imagine an iconic image of American sports history erased.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Pence sticks to his ‘Roadmap’
As a U.S. congressman, Mike Pence made it perfectly clear how he felt about the need for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s ‘skills gap’
A problem lasting decades ceases to be a “problem.” By then, the situation becomes “part of the culture.”
MIKE LUNSFORD: Twain’s Sawyer helps us yearn for ‘wilderness of childhood’
My cousin, Roger, stopped in one day last summer for a glass of tea and a little conversation. Rog has lived an hour’s drive away for years and now, and besides summer reunions, I don’t see him nearly often enough. He’s a good man who has raised a good family, and he owns a healthy sense of appreciation for not only the life he has now, but also the lives we had years ago as kids.
STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE:Supreme Court providing convenient cover for GOP
If GOP leaders in the Indiana General Assembly announce this week, as expected, that they’re postponing a vote on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions, you can expect them to cite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to step into the larger issue later this year as the primary reason.
MARK BENNETT: America’s best quality of life? Indiana must address flaws, set priorities
Just as the job interview seems smooth, the interviewer drops the question.
“So, where do you see yourself in five years?”
MARK BENNETT: Pondering what is meant by ‘quality of life’ to Hoosiers
Sometimes it’s sincere. Other times, it’s sarcasm.
You cross paths with a friend, ask how they’re doing, and they say, “Ah, just livin’ the dream.”
Livin’ the dream. What exactly does that involve? Can it be defined?
- More News Columns Headlines
- MIKE LUNSFORD: Remembering Mom a day after Mother’s Day