Monday, June 22, 2015

Supreme Court says license plates are not free-speech zones

The confederate flag is in the news, because a racist in South Carolina killed innocent black people in a church. The State of South Carolina still flies the confederate flag over the State House. At the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that the State of Texas could prevent motorists from using a license plate that celebrates the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The case is Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, decided on June 18. The Circuit courts have split on the issue of whether the First Amendment requires the states to honor offensive specialty license plate requests. The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, says it's not a First Amendment problem and that the state can control what people say on their license plates. (The Second Circuit resolved this issue a few weeks ago, in a lengthy 2-1 opinion, ruling that New York could lawfully regulate license plates).

License plates have been the subject of Supreme Court rulings before. In 1977, the Court said the state cannot force people to display slogans on their license plates. In that case, Wooley v. Maynard, the Court said a New Hampshire motorist could block out "Live Free or Die." This case asks the opposite question, can motorists force the state to display certain slogans? They cannot.

The Court says license plates constitute government speech, not citizen speech. The government is able to control the message it sends out to the world without having to entertain contrary opinions. While people like to advertise their personalities to the world through their license plates, the plates are still government property. As the Court says, the history of license plates shows that they have long communicated state messages ("America's Dairyland" and "Keep Florida Green"). Texas license plates are often closely identified in the public mind with the state, the Court adds, as each plate is a "government article serving the governmental purpose of vehicle registration and identification." The plates "are essentially government ID's." And the state has maintained direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates. All this adds up to government speech. As the Court has held in years past that the government can control its own speech, the Confederate people lose the case.

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