States that sell specialty license plates promoting everything from “Choose Life” to “Conserve Water” can prohibit images like the Confederate flag, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices said Texas’ specialty license plate program is a form of government speech. The First Amendment does not prohibit the state from rejecting some designs, they said.
“States have long used license plates in this country to convey government messages,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority, which included the court’s other more liberal justices along with Clarence Thomas. Just as the state cannot force drivers to espouse a particular message, he said, drivers cannot force a state to espouse theirs.
The decision frees all 50 states to police their specialty license plate programs as they see fit. Had the court ruled against Texas, it could have forced states to change or curtail their programs, lest they be forced to permit virtually any messages from appearing on state-issued license plates.
The immediate impact is a setback for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which had challenged Texas’ denial of its license plate. The group argued it was merely honoring those who fought for the South. Some state residents said the image of a Confederate flag symbolized racism and division.
“The idea of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance apparently does not apply under law to those of us whose heritage is unpopular in some quarters,” said Charles Kelly Barrow, the organization’s commander in chief. “This is a sad day for the First Amendment and for mutual respect and bridge-building among Americans of different viewpoints.”
Four justices, led by Samuel Alito, would have allowed the Confederate license plate and blocked states from refusing messages they find objectionable.
“The court’s decision passes off private speech as government speech and, in doing so, establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing,” their dissent said.
“Specialty plates may seem innocuous,” Alito added. “They make motorists happy, and they put money in a state’s coffers. But the precedent this case sets is dangerous.”
To illustrate his point, Alito imagined sitting along a Texas highway and seeing more than 350 specialty plates whiz by — plates honoring colleges and universities, fraternities and sororities, even “a favorite soft drink, a favorite burger restaurant, and a favorite NASCAR driver.”
“Would you really think that the sentiments reflected in these specialty plates are the views of the State of Texas and not those of the owners of the cars?” he said.
But Breyer’s majority opinion noted that without limits, states would be forced to permit conflicting messages. He said drivers can use bumper stickers to convey a personal message, but “placing it on the license plate would suggest, at least to some observers, that it is the state that is conveying the message.”
“Texas offers plates that pay tribute to the Texas citrus industry. But it need not issue plates praising Florida’s oranges as far better,” Breyer said. “And Texas offers plates that say ‘Fight Terrorism.’ But it need not issue plates promoting al-Qaeda.”
The case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, became a major test of the First Amendment, pitting freedom of speech against government authority. The court was faced with several tough questions: Who is speaking, the government or the driver? Can entire subjects be limited, or specific viewpoints? And must states give equal time to both sides of an issue?
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SOURCE: USA Today – Richard Wolf and Brad Heath