Arizona Life Coalition vs. Stanton

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In Arizona Life Coalition vs. Stanton, 515 F.3d 956 (9th Cir. 2008),[1] the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court and held that "[m]essages conveyed through special organization plates—although possessing some characteristics of government speech—represent primarily private speech" that is protected by the First Amendment.

Arizona Life Coalition ("Life Coalition") had appealed a summary judgment in favor of Stacey Stanton and other members of the Arizona License Plate Commission (collectively the "Commission"). Life Coalition argued that the Commission violated its First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by arbitrarily denying its application for a special Arizona organization license plate that would portray its message "Choose Life." The Court agreed that the Commission violated Life Coalition's First Amendment right to free speech, and the Court did not reach its equal protection argument.

The Court held that:

Through its special organization license plate program, Arizona has created a limited public forum for all nonprofit organizations that meet the State's statutory requirements. Because the Commission denied Life Coalition's application on grounds not specified in the statute or related to the limited purpose of the license plate forum, it reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Commission.

The Court ruled that by allowing organizations to obtain speciality license plates with their logo and motto, Arizona provided a forum in which philanthropic organizations, see Ariz. Rev. Code § 28-2404(B), can exercise their First Amendment rights in the hopes of raising money to support their cause

The Court distinguished Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Ass'n on the grounds that in Johanns the beef producers had no choice but to support the beef ad, while here there was nothing in the record to even suggest that Arizona intended to adopt the message of each special organization plate as its own state speech. The Court relied on Faith Ctr. Church Evangelistic Ministries v. Glover, 480 F.3d 891, 908 (9th Cir. 2007), which held that the County intended to open its library meeting room to expressive activity when it allowed all "[n]on-profit and civic organizations, for-profit organizations, schools and governmental organizations" to use the meeting room for "meetings, programs, or activities of educational, cultural or community interest" (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court rejected the argument that the Commission was entitled to chose not to enter the Choose Life/Pro-Choice debate:

"where the government is plainly motivated by the nature of the message rather than the limitations of the forum or a specific risk within that forum, it is regulating a viewpoint rather than a subject matter." Sammartano, 303 F.3d at 971; see also Choose Life Illinois, Inc., 2007 WL 178455, *8 (stating in dicta that the denial of an application for a "Choose Life" license plate because it is "controversial") amounts to viewpoint discrimination.

The Court concluded that because the Commission denied Life Coalition's application on a ground not expressly related to the forum's purpose by discriminating on the basis of the viewpoint contained in its proposed message, the Commission acted in violation of the First Amendment.

Judge Richard Tallman, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, delivered the opinion for the unanimous three-judge panel.