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Government limiting free speech on plates

A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling declares specialized license plates are a form of government speech. That may make life easier for state officials dealing with potentially controversial license requests, but it also appears to dilute individuals’ free-speech rights, as several justices noted in dissent.

The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans sought a special plate featuring a Confederate battle flag. A Texas state board denied the request, saying the message would be controversial and offensive to many citizens.

To defend the rejection, the attorney general of Texas argued that specialty plates represent the words and views of the state, not an individual.

A five-justice majority, comprising the court’s liberal wing and conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed with that argument. The majority opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, declared that if government officials cannot control the content of government messages, then “government would not work.”

Without such control, Breyer suggested, a city recycling program could be forced to promote messages of opposition or government vaccination programs could be forced to “voice the perspective of those who oppose” immunizations.

The majority equated license plates to government monuments, saying both represent government speech. With specialty license plate designs, Breyer declared Texas “is not simply managing government property, but instead is engaging in expressive conduct.”

Thus, state officials may control the content of license plate messages.

But the dissent authored by Justice Samuel Alito (joined by three other justices) noted that logic generates bizarre outcomes. Among the roughly 350 specialty plates Texas has approved are plates promoting schools that play the University of Texas. Alito rhetorically asked if this means an observer should assume the state of Texas “was officially (and perhaps treasonously) rooting for the Longhorns’ opponents?”

Alito noted that “all license plates unquestionably contain some government speech” such as the state name and identifying vehicle numbers, but argued that Texas “has converted the remaining space on its specialty plates into little mobile billboards on which motorists can display their own messages. And what Texas did here was to reject one of the messages that members of a private group wanted to post on some of these little billboards because the State thought that many of its citizens would find the message offensive. That is blatant viewpoint discrimination.”

He noted specialty plates have proliferated for financial reasons, not due to government-speech needs. “States have not adopted specialty license plate programs like Texas’s because they are now bursting with things they want to say on their license plates,” Alito wrote. “Those programs were adopted because they bring in money.”

The ruling may please some, but it won’t alleviate concern that free speech is being stifled when various messages are rejected by government officials even as others gain easy approval.

The Oklahoman

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