6/23/2015US Supreme Court Approves License Plate Censorship
Divided US Supreme Court ruling allows states to reject specialty license plates based on the viewpoint expressed.
State governments are free to prohibit disagreeable license plates under a 5 to 4 ruling last Thursday by the US Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer delivered the majority opinion that upheld the right of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to deny the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans a specialty license plate bearing a Confederate battle flag.
The high court noted that it was only ruling on the issue of specialty plates, not the text of personalized plates selected by individual motorists. All manner of groups, from real estate agents and Rotary clubs to college alumni associations can follow a set of rules and obtain state-issued plates for their members. The court majority argued that the First Amendment does not require the government to take a "neutral" stance on public issues, so it can endorse these groups.
"When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says," Justice Breyer wrote. "Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise, government would not work... How could a state government effectively develop programs designed to encourage and provide vaccinations, if officials also had to voice the perspective of those who oppose this type of immunization?"
The majority deemed the specialty plates to be a form of government speech, similar to the creation of a public monument. This is so, they argued, because the label TEXAS is at the top of every plate. The majority recommended that those who disagree with the government's choice of plate use a bumper sticker to convey their contrary view.
"Just as Texas cannot require the Sons of Confederate Veterans to convey the state's ideological message, the Sons of Confederate Veterans cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates," Justice Breyer concluded.
Justice Clarence Thomas joined the liberal wing of the court -- Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- in approving Justice Breyer's majority opinion. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the conservative wing -- Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts and Antonin Scalia -- in a dissent that mocked the majority opinion for the sheer implausibility of someone sitting by the side of the road and viewing the state's variety of 350 specialty plates as expressions of the government's viewpoint.
"If you did your viewing at the start of the college football season and you saw Texas plates with the names of the University of Texas's out-of-state competitors in upcoming games -- Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, the University of Oklahoma, Kansas State, Iowa State -- would you assume that the state of Texas was officially (and perhaps treasonously) rooting for the Longhorns' opponents?" Justice Alito wrote.
The dissenters argued that it makes more sense to say that the state offered "little billboards" to the public -- for the sole purpose of making money -- and discriminated against a private group's use of the space because some found the message offensive. Many public interest groups have found that precedent troubling.
"This ruling sanctions total government censorship," Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead said in a statement on the ruling. "We are witnessing an elitist philosophy at play, one shared by both the extreme left and the extreme right, which aims to stifle all expression that doesn't fit within their parameters of what they consider to be 'acceptable' speech... the message being conveyed is that you don't have a right to express yourself if certain people don't like or agree with what you are saying."
A copy of the decision is available in a 3mb PDF file at the source link below.