Courts & Crime

Free speech, or a rebel yell? Supreme Court agrees to hear Texas license plate case

Confederate flag
Confederate flag MCT

The recurring question of license-plate-as-speech will motor back to the Supreme Court, as justices on Friday agreed to hear a challenge involving the state of Texas and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Texas officials rejected a license plate design proposed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group’s Texas Division wanted plates to include a logo, consisting of a square Confederate battle flag surrounded on its four sides by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.”

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposal, noting that “public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive.” Challenged as a First Amendment violation, the state responded that it retained the ability to choose the messages and symbols that will appear on its specialty license plates. The state also insisted its decision did not discriminate against a particular viewpoint.

Appellate circuits are split on whether license plates count as “government speech,” over which the government can exert maximum control. Circuits are split, as well, concerning viewpoint discrimination.

“The State had argued that its decision to keep the Confederate battle flag off its license plates was viewpoint neutral because the State has not issued any license plate disparaging the confederacy, the Confederate battle flag, or the views espoused by the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” the state argued.

The more than 350 specialty plates available in Texas express a wide variety of messages, ranging from “Choose Life” and “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” to “Mighty Fine Burgers.”

“The State cannot open a forum for speech and then deny access to that forum on the basis of viewpoint,” wrote attorney R. James George, Jr., for Sons of Confederate Veterans, and “’offensiveness’ is not a permissible standard to restrict speech.”