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License Plates Put Abortion Controversy in Full View

An attorney is suing Arkansas, arguing that officials are allowing only one viewpoint -- 'Choose Life' -- to be displayed in public.

November 28, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Doug Norwood chuckled, stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee and, in a Southern drawl that sounded like warm molasses, confessed: Even if all's fair in love, war and politics, it was a dirty trick.

This fall, Arkansas began selling specialty license plates decorated with a crayon-like drawing of two children and the words "Choose Life." It was the latest in a string of coordinated victories for a Florida-based organization, Choose Life Inc., whose Web site says its license plate campaign allows drivers to "speak up for the unborn."

Supporters say the plates are intended to encourage women facing crisis pregnancies to choose adoption over abortion; critics call the plates a subversive message and an inappropriate use of government-sponsored space.

Norwood, a prominent defense attorney here in northwestern Arkansas, wanted to sue the state but feared that he would have trouble proving legal standing -- proving that, in essence, he had been harmed by the law that created the plates. For that, he needed an ally, and in Tamara Brackett, he found one.

Norwood had been Brackett's lawyer for two years. She had been charged with burglary, though he said she was peripherally involved and wrapped up, at the time, with the wrong man. After a plea bargain sent her to a probation program for first-time offenders, her case was winding down. But he had an assignment for her.

This month, he dispatched Brackett, who could not be reached for comment for this article, to a state Department of Revenue office near her home. Under his order, she marched confidently to a clerk and asked to buy a specialty license plate for her car. Brackett told the clerk that she wanted the plate to read "Choose Choice."

The clerk replied, as Norwood said she would, that Arkansas did not offer such a plate. That was enough for Norwood. On Nov. 10, on behalf of Brackett, he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, seeking to "vindicate rights secured to her by the 1st and 14th Amendments" -- her rights to free speech and equal protection.

"The state of Arkansas has opened a state-created forum to one viewpoint alone in the ongoing public controversy over abortion," the lawsuit read.

It is the latest legal challenge to stem from what has quietly become one of the most contested venues in the abortion debate: the nation's highways.

With Choose Life Inc.'s steady guidance, Arkansas became the eighth state to approve the license plates. Antiabortion activists are attempting to get the plates approved in 30 more states, said Russ Amerling, the organization's spokesman. Nearly 50,000 plates have been sold nationwide. Most have been sold in Florida, which in 2000 -- when Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill that his predecessor had vetoed -- became the first state to sell the plates.

The Arkansas plates cost $35 apiece, slightly below average. Nationwide, the plates have raised more than $2 million for programs that provide crisis counseling to pregnant women -- provided the programs do not discuss the option of abortion.

"We want to let women see all the options," Amerling said. "She's getting plenty of counsel, unfortunately, and advice to have an abortion. We're just trying to level the playing field."

The license plates have been met with a series of challenges, with mixed results.

In Florida, the plates have survived at least two lawsuits. But in July, a federal judge blocked Louisiana from issuing "Choose Life" plates, saying that they constitute a public forum protected by free speech. And a judge in South Carolina determined last year that the plates were a "clear manifestation of viewpoint discrimination."

In California, the Legislature rejected a proposal to create "Choose Life" plates this fall. That prompted a lawsuit from an antiabortion group and a ruling from a federal judge that the state must stop providing new specialty plates until it fixes its process for selecting them -- because under the current system, the Legislature has "unbridled authority" to suppress a "point of view."

Amerling says he's not worried.

"We are not breaking into a sweat, that's for sure," he said. "We've got a long way to go."

At the center of the Arkansas challenge is Norwood, 49, who is adding another chapter to a storied and often bizarre career.

Originally from the Panhandle of Florida, he grew up in a trailer home and said he was a walking punch line for one of those "You know you're a redneck if ..." jokes. The first member of his family to graduate from college, he garnered his first national headlines before he could finish law school at the University of Arkansas.

In 1985, he became enmeshed in a domestic squabble. A Tulsa, Okla., businessman was accused of hiring a team of assassins to kill him. Fourteen people were eventually sent to prison, but not before Norwood was shot and his car firebombed. A settlement with the magazine accused of carrying advertisements for the would-be assassins gave Norwood enough money to open his own law firm.

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