States have the right to reject controversial specialty license plates, the Supreme Court ruled last week.
In a case that examined the First Amendment implications of such restrictions, the nation’s high court ruled that such rejections don’t amount to discrimination because the government – not the motorist – is doing the speaking.
That distinction was at the heart of the court’s decision in Walker v. Sons of the Confederate Veterans. In concluding that such speech belongs to the government, justices in the 5-4 majority said license plates are “essentially” government identifications that serve a government purpose. As government speech, they’re not subject to stringent free-speech protections.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said the government can promote or restrict viewpoints in its speech. “When the government speaks, it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy or to take a position,” he wrote. “In doing so, it represents its citizens and it carries out its duties on their behalf.”
The decision reverses a lower-court ruling which found the Texas Division of Motor Vehicles had violated the First Amendment rights of the Sons of Confederate veterans when it rejected the group’s application for a specialty plate that contained the Confederate flag and phrase “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.” Nine other states already offer such Stars and Bars license plates, but Texas had rejected the application on the grounds that it could be offensive.
That’s a troubling precedent, says Ben Jones, a former Democratic congressman from Georgia who is involved in the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization.
“I think it’s a very dangerous trend going on,” Jones told Autoblog. “The ruling is an enormous disappointment to us, and in a way, it caves to the pressures of the politically correct movement, and revisionist historians who are having their day.”