·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary


Protected Speech in Play as Supreme Court Tackles Texas License Plate Battle

— March 23, 2015

A Supreme Court hearing that began Monday regarding personalized Texas license plates will likely reignite the debate over protected speech and could potentially redefine the ways that governments collect revenue. Like many states, Texas offers drivers the opportunity to purchase specialty plates advertising causes or non-profit groups. Many groups pay the state to produce the plates in order to spread awareness of them and their message. A plate design from one such group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), was denied due to the organization’s logo, which includes a Confederate flag. The proposal for the specialty plates was unanimously rejected by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board in 2011 under the criteria that the logo was “offensive to any member of the public.” Attorneys for the SCV argue that there is no legal basis for the criteria, and that the rejection is a violation of First Amendment-protected free speech.

Much like the contentious Citizens United ruling, this case will help to define the unsteady ground that surrounds the area of protected speech. The core issue at hand is whether or not messages on a license plate consist of “government speech,” which is not subject to the same First Amendment protections as is private speech. In a similar case from 2009, the court ruled in favor of the city of Pleasant Grove, Utah, versus a small religious group. The group, named Summum, attempted to erect a monument of its “Seven Aphorisms” next to an existing Ten Commandments display in a public park, but was denied by the city. The majority opinion in the case argued that the government has the ultimate discretion in what image it wants to present to the public. This opinion ran counter to a 2002 ruling by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which struck down a Virginia recall and ban of SCV plates, forcing the state to issue the plates under a court order that has remained in effect ever since. A ruling on the Texas case, titled Walker vs. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Liberty, is expected in the summer, 2015

The ruling could have an impact far beyond Texas, as many states and local governments collect revenue through specialty plates and through other partnerships with private-sector groups. The ruling could give or take away governmental discretion on what messages it delivers to the public, as well as what measures the government can use to prevent messages it disapproves of. The ruling also may also help to more closely define the term “offensive,” and standardize its applicability for government speech. All of these reasons make this case one of the more critical decisions of the 2015 Supreme Court term.

CNN – Ariane de Vogue

The Washington Post – Robert Barnes

The Washington Post – Robert Barnes

The San Francisco Gate – McClatchy Newspapers

Join the conversation!