01/03/2011 05:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Tread On Me (Or My Bumper): The Latest License Plate Debate

Overseas on a covert research mission for the vast right wing conspiracy, I recently found myself breathing a sigh of fresh air in one of the world's most polluted cities. No, it wasn't Mumbai's campaign to improve the fuel efficiency of its cabs that did it for me. Rather, it was the city's license plates. They were plain, simple, and devoid of political references or alumni boasting.

Once upon a time, American license plates were a sign of pride and joy for the residents of each state--advertising to newcomers, proclaiming all the great virtues and adventures just waiting to be discovered. While I'm slightly biased, the simplicity of my home state's "Colorful Colorado" was near the top of the pack.


The clean outline of green mountains against a white backdrop told tourists what they needed to know. We have a lot of really tall mountains, including 54 that stand over 14,000 feet tall, to be exact. Alaska's "Last Frontier" plates were a big hit, too, as were California's blue and yellow plates, recognizable coast to coast.

Those were the days.

Then someone got the smart idea to make money off these plates. And everything went to hell in a hand basket. Colorado now has over 100 options, including "Respect Life" plates that were originally pitched as a way of honoring those killed in the Columbine High School shootings.

These plates have proven incredibly controversial, with opponents raging mad because they allege the motto is really just an undercover attempt to discredit abortion rights. While more than half of Colorado voters self-identify as "pro-choice," enough of them have plunked down $25 a year for the plates to generate more than $2 million for state coffers and educational causes.

Supporters of Washington, D.C.'s "Taxation Without Representation" plates practically rioted in the streets when earlier in this decade when former President George W. Bush demanded that the plates be removed from his presidential motorcade. How could the leader of the Free World not see the wisdom of the plate's message, so eloquently designed to awaken Congress to the fact that the district's 600,000 residents were provided not a single voting member in either chamber?

Initially, specialty plates sound like a great idea. Support a good cause, draw attention to your alma mater, or if you're really sneaky, get the state to endorse your political agenda. Right there. On a state-issued plate. I asked one friend I knew to be pro-choice why she selected the "Respect Life" plates. Her response: she thought they were pretty.

What's the problem with the state (and some pretty worthy non-profits too) making a few bucks off a fun plate? Well, as it turns out, a lot.

License plates are supposed to help us identify vehicles. In a worst case scenario, they help us find that evil carjacker or drive-by shooter. But how can we do this when even the most reasonable person doesn't stand a chance against the thousands of logos and emblems that now cover our plates. Ohio's breast cancer plate features a pink ribbon, just like Colorado's, and for also just $25, it's a pretty good deal.

Until you consider that Ohio alone offers nearly 30 different university license plates, and dozens more that endorse everything from your college sorority to your favorite professional sports team. Like bald eagles? They've got one for you. Believe in autism awareness? Done. Boy Scouts and "amateur" radio can also be recognized.

Then things got even more out of control. Yes, you guessed it. Lawyers got involved. As I sat in a cab waging battle with Mumbai traffic, I came across a December article from the Economist offering more detail.

As it turns out, while we can handle plates proclaiming the greatness of the football team we most despise, some plates are just too controversial for others to handle. As the Economist reports, Texas has authorized a "Don't tread on me" plate, once simply an ode to the revolutionary-era Gadsden flag first flown in 1775. With its rattlesnake coil, perhaps it's intimidating to some.

With Virginia and Nevada considering adopting similar plates for purchase of their own, critics argue that it's an political endorsement of the so-called Tea Party movement, the ragtag team of conservative and libertarian activists credited for overtaking Congress from its prior Democratic leadership. It is, God forbid, political advertising on state property.

The U.S. Supreme Court first took up this license plate drama in 1977, when through Wooley v. Maynard, the Court held that requiring plates bearing New Hampshire's slogan of "Live Free or Die" violated a citizen's right to be free from government-mandated expression, instructing state leaders that they would need to provide an alternative version for those against the plate's message.

Ask and you shall receive. A little more than three decades later, the average American can pick from an almost endless sea of options. The question remains, however: if this same citizen were asked to identify plates based on their state origin, how many could he get right?

If people really feel the need to advocate on their rear bumper, they have options other than plates. They're called bumper stickers. I've pasted one or two on the rear of various vehicles over the years. I got my message out there without giving the state a single dime, instead directing extra cash to the non-profits I support in my own private life. I don't want the state to endorse your political viewpoint and this also means it shouldn't have to endorse mine. Especially on state property, which plates in most states are.

While various studies attempt to predict a driver's level of aggression as it correlates to his affinity for bumper stickers or the type of vanity license plate he or she selects, such analysis simply can't hold up. Not today, when the minivan that just passed you is being driven by a breast cancer survivor whose husband, an avid Bengels fan, joins her in the front, and their son, a Boy Scout, chats with the autistic neighborhood kid from the back seat. Which plate shall she choose? Hopefully, none at all.

Assuming her state still provides a standard-issued version.

Jessica P. Corry ( is a Denver attorney and political strategist. She is also a Phillips Foundation Robert Novak Fellow.