Supreme Court upholds rejection of Confederate flag license plate

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas had not infringed freedom of speech rights in turning down a group's license plate design. It held that license plates are government speech, not private speech.

REUTERS/Texas Department of Motor Vehicles/Handout
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas did not infringe on free speech rights when it rejected the proposed specialty license plate displaying the Confederate flag, to some an emblem of Southern pride and to others a symbol of racism.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas had not violated any First Amendment rights in rejecting a group’s design for a specialty license plate bearing the Confederate battle flag.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court rejected the argument that license plates are considered private speech, as the group Sons of Confederate Veterans had asserted.

It was the first time the Department of Motor Vehicles board had ever turned down a Texas plate design, according to reports. Gov. Rick Perry has also declared his opposition to the plate.

“When the government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. “A government is generally entitled to promote a program, espouse a policy, or take a position. Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise, ‘it is not easy to imagine how government would function.’”

Sons of Confederate Veterans first sued Texas in 2011, arguing that the license plate was private speech intended only to honor soldiers who had fought for the South. It had also brought the same suits against Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, reported NBC5 News

“This is a sad day for the First Amendment and for mutual respect and bridge-building among Americans of different viewpoints,” Charles Kelly Barrow, the organization’s leader, told USA Today Thursday.

Many states around the country allow private individuals or non-profit organizations to submit a design for a specialty license plate to state approval, said Ariane de Vogue, CNN’s Supreme Court reporter.

“And Texas, in this case, it drew the line against the Sons of Confederate Veterans," she added. "It said, ‘we are not going to have the confederate flag on our license plates. That’s offensive.’”

To weigh the question, judges looked at other specialty license plates. Observing another design that read, “mighty fine burgers,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “Is that government speech?” reported CNN.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, dissented from the opinion. Justice Alito wrote that the ruling “establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing,” poking holes in the idea that the state was represented in the more than 350 varieties of specialty plates found in Texas.

As you sat there watching these plates speed by, 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? If a car with a plate that says “Rather Be Golfing” passed by at 8:30 am on a Monday morning, would you think: “This is the official policy of the State – better to golf than to work?”

The decision is handed down at a time of climbing racial tensions around the nation, one day after a suspected white supremacist, Dylann Roof, allegedly shot nine people dead in a historic African-American church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. 

The case has turned attention to the polarizing interpretations of the Confederate flag and will set a precedent for similar upcoming decisions, such as whether or not to permit plates reading, “Choose Life” against abortion, CNN reported.

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