WASHINGTON, D.C. — Delivering a sharp blow to the First Amendment, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court has declared specialty license plates to be “government speech” and not private speech and, thus, subject to censorship by government officials. The Rutherford Institute warns that the ruling could set a dangerous precedent, paving the way for the government to censor private speech whenever it occurs in a public or government forum. At issue in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., was whether Texas officials violated the First Amendment when they denied a Civil War heritage group’s request for a specialty plate bearing the Confederate battle flag, allegedly because the Department of Motor Vehicles was concerned some people would be offended by the Confederate flag.
In weighing in on the case, The Rutherford Institute had urged the Court to affirm that specialty license plates—which run the gamut in Texas from college alumni associations and fast food chains to real estate brokers and Dr. Pepper—are private speech which may not be censored on the basis of viewpoint. Institute attorneys also argued that by inviting groups to engage in private speech and contribute to the marketplace of ideas, the government surrendered the right to treat the license plate as “government speech” subject to any censorship the state deems appropriate.
“This ruling sanctions total government censorship. 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, ” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “There are all kinds of labels put on such speech: it's been called politically incorrect speech, hate speech, offensive speech, and so on, but really, 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.”
Like many states, Texas allows motorists to use specialty license plates, which display a message or symbol supporting a cause or nonprofit group. By law, any nonprofit organization is allowed to apply for a specialty plate by submitting a design to be approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2009, Texas SCV, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve the memory and reputation of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, applied for a specialty license plate and submitted a design that featured the SCV logo, which is a Confederate battle flag framed on all four sides by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.” When the matter reached the DMV, it asked for public comment on approval of the application, and in response received comments both supporting and against the application. Eventually, the DMV voted to deny the application, explaining that some of the public comments found the Confederate flag portion of the propose plate offensive. The SCV then filed suit, alleging that the denial of the application constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. A district court subsequently ruled that the state did not violate the Constitution. On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed that decision, holding that the specialty license plates are private speech protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the DMV unconstitutionally discriminated against the SCV by classifying as offensive its view that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage.
Affiliate attorneys D. Alicia Hickok and Todd N. Hutchinson of Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP, in Philadelphia, assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.