Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Supremes Strike Down Texas SCV Plates

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 18, 2015

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held today that specialty license plates are a form of government speech: Blank

History shows that States, including Texas, have long used license plates to convey government speech, e.g., slogans urging action, promoting tourism, and touting local industries. Cf. id., at 470. Second, Texas license plate designs “are often closely identified in the public mind with the [State].” Id., at 472. Each plate is a government article serving the governmental purposes of vehicle registration and identification. The governmental nature of the plates is clear from their faces: the State places the name “TEXAS” in large letters across the top of every plate. Texas also requires Texas vehicle owners to display license plates, issues every Texas plate, and owns all of the designs on its plates. The plates are, essentially, government IDs, and ID issuers “typically do not permit” their IDs to contain “message[s] with which they do not wish to be associated,” id., at 471. Third, Texas maintains direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates, by giving the Board final approva lover each design. Like the city government in Summum, Texas “has effectively controlled the messages [conveyed] by exercising final approval authority over their selection.” Id., at 473. These considerations, taken together, show that Texas’s specialty plates are similar enough to the monuments in Summum to call for the same result.

Blank And this: Blank

The Court has also recognized that the First Amendment stringently limits a State’s authority to compel a private party to express a view with which the private party disagrees. Just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey “the State’s ideological message,” id., at 715, SCV cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates.

Blank This is not an outcome I expected. Heretofore the federal courts have upheld plates like these in other states; now that the Supreme Court has ruled the other way, expect moves in those other states to rescind those plate programs. Today’s ruling also underscores the principle that governmental entities have significant latitude to pick and choose what causes or events they promote or commemorate, even when solicited to do so by the public. I have no idea how this will all shake out in the long run. You can download the full opinion here.


19 Responses

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  1. Jon Morrison said, on June 18, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Wow. Brace yourself for the storm of protests & screaming flaggers.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2015 at 11:05 am

      Well, sure. But righteous outrage is the fire that runs that particular engine. It’s not coincidence that the Virginia Flaggers’ catchphrase is, “are you mad enough yet?”

  2. Jimmy Dick said, on June 18, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    I am actually pretty surprised at this ruling. I am not even sure I agree with it. However, in the light of the murders in South Carolina last night committed by a racist in a state where the symbol of racism, tyranny, and oppression flies over the state capital showing official state government support for racism, tyranny, and oppression of black people I find myself liking the ruling.

    • Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on June 18, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      There are only two flags flying over the Statehouse in Columbia: The US flag and the South Carolina flag. Which one are you referring to when you say a symbol of “racism, tyranny, and oppression flies over the state capital showing official state government support for racism, tyranny, and oppression of black people”? As for the Confederate flag, it was removed from the Statehouse dome in 2000.

      As for the ruling, either the government should let all legitimate 501(c)3 organizations who meet sponsorship requirements have their own vanity plates or it should let none. I think the whole vanity plate business has gotten out of hand and we need to go back to each state having a handful of basic plates – one for cars, one for commercial trucks and one for law enforcement. There may be another essential category or two I’m overlooking, but no state needs to have 40 or 50 (or more) different plate styles. I can’t imagine being law enforcement and trying to call in a plate on a suspicious vehicle with all the different varieties in some states.

      • Jimmy Dick said, on June 18, 2015 at 2:26 pm

        My mistake. It flies on state grounds at a memorial to Confederate war dead.

        I do agree about the vanity plates being out of hand. They are really nothing more than a money generator for states now. Cars could have electronic devices placed in the engine compartment that would be activated by signals for identification purposes. Stolen cars would be much easier to trace if the device is placed in a really difficult to reach spot and could be switched on when reported thus directing cops right to the car. Same for when searching for a suspect’s vehicle.

        I’m sure that will never fly.

      • Michael Rodgers said, on June 18, 2015 at 5:58 pm

        Confederate flags were also removed from the Senate and House chambers then too! And all those Confederate flags were immediately put in a museum! And not just any museum but the State Museum! What more could anybody want?!?! The problem was totally and completely solved in 2000!! All the flags were taken down!!!

        • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2015 at 5:59 pm


          • David N. said, on June 19, 2015 at 6:59 pm

            I don’t see why we should poke fun at Rodgers for pointing out some useful facts. As for the situation in South Carolina the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag has already been solved by removing it from state buildings. The SC decision was about a situation in Texas.

            • Jimmy Dick said, on June 19, 2015 at 9:54 pm

              It is not solved. The rag needs to be taken down from its place on the capital grounds and burned. The only place a confederate flag belongs from now on is at reenactments and museums. Any other use of it supports terrorists.

            • Andy Hall said, on June 19, 2015 at 11:29 pm

              I feel like I know Michael Rodgers pretty well, and I do believe he was spoofing. Michael’s blog was called, “Take It Down!”

              • Michael Rodgers said, on June 20, 2015 at 3:22 am

                My point — made via humorous overuse of exclamation points — was that dismissiveness through fact selectivity and incomplete storytelling is wrong. When all three flags were taken down, a new one was put up. And, as Andy said, I used to write a blog called takedowntheflag in which I argued for taking down this newly flying Confederate flag. My main argument was that this new flag’s location is confusing. It’s on the State House grounds — right behind the Confederate Soldier Monument AND out in front of the State House.

                Its confusing location leads to articles such as this one that asks and explains “Why South Carolina’s Confederate flag isn’t at half-staff after church shooting.” If there wasn’t a flag there or if SC’s Confederate monument was off to the side with flags clearly connected to it (as is in Alabama), then questions of flag protocol would not come up.

                And, to connect back to the original post, I’m glad the case was decided this way to resolve the confusion over whether license plates are state speech or free speech; I think that because license plates are issued by the state, the messages on them are state speech.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2015 at 1:23 pm

      The initial reports about Roof hint at his ideology, but it’s too early to make conclusions about it. We’ll see.

  3. Leo said, on June 18, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    I must say I am very surprised by this decision, but do see how the court made its decision. I am sure the faux heritage groups are going to rant and rave about political correctness and the oppressive federal government. I guess they will have to raise another battle flag along I-95 so they can feel like they have accomplished something.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      “I am sure the faux heritage groups are going to rant and rave about political correctness and the oppressive federal government.”

      Which is to say, *Thursday*.

  4. woodrowfan said, on June 20, 2015 at 9:12 am

    Interesting. I wonder if the case will be appealed further up the line.

    here in Virginia we have SCV p8ts, as well as Tea Party pl8ts that are a hideous pus yellow. We also have pl8ts for antiabortion groups, pro-animal welfare, friends of Tibet, bowlers, NRA, FOP, all sorts of vet groups, college alum (including many outside of Virginia) According to the DMV site we have over 200 different specialized ones available.

    Andy might like this one…

    Class J No. 611 Steam Locomotv

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2015 at 1:21 pm

      There is no “up the line” as far as I can see in this case.

      Here in Texas we also have a ridiculous number of specialty plates, for just about everything one might imagine, and some are pretty explicitly political. My understanding is that cops hate them because they’re hard to read. My personal preference would be to have maybe a half dozen official plate designs, to allow for some choice and variety, and beyond that let people put stickers on their cars.

  5. Dominic said, on June 20, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    This is very interesting. Thank you for sharing. I wonder what effect this decision might have on current controversy in New York and Philadelphia about proposed anti-Muslim advertisements on public transportation.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2015 at 1:16 pm

      I’ve only read a little about those cases. This Texas case doesn’t apply directly to those, of course, but the principle embedded in it might. If the transit companies are held to be government entities, then I should think the Texas SCV case would support those transit companies’ refusal to post certain messages or advertising on buses and in subways. Certainly a private billboard operator has that right.

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