There is a sad irony that on the day after a Caucasian gunman, who is reportedly a white supremacist, opened fire and killed 9 people in an historic African American church, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that states do not have to allow Confederate flags on license plates to support free speech. The desire to keep promoting the Confederacy and other White supremacist types of messages continues to throw oil on the already aflame issue of racial harmony in the U.S.
The Supreme Court ruled that Texas did not infringe upon freedom of speech rights in rejecting the group’s license plate design. The 5-4 decision held that license plates are government speech, not private speech, as the group Sons of Confederate Veterans had asserted. The ruling supports the right of states to reject license plate designs with a swastika or a racial slur, which the justices worried could be forthcoming if license plates were determined to merit First Amendment protection.
Many states allow individuals or non-profit organizations to submit a design for a specialty plate, subject to state approval. The states like the practice because those license plates generate more revenue than traditional plates. The Sons of the Confederate Veterans submitted their design, which was intended to “honor” those who fought for the South. It became the first ever rejected by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which led to the lawsuit that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer noted, “When the government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.” He noted that a government can choose to promote a program or policy, but government speech does not have to represent all views.
A spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans actually claims that the court ruling hurts “mutual respect and bridge-building among Americans of different viewpoints.” They do not accept that some of us believe promoting the Confederacy is as heinous as promoting the Nazis, Al Qaeda or Boko Haram. There are definitely people who may be descendants of Hitler’s henchmen or support the cause of people who believe their race and beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the dissent that this “establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that government finds displeasing.” During oral arguments in March, Chief Justice John Roberts had questioned whether the states should sell space on license plates at all. Additionally, the Supreme Court decision is likely to affect specialty license plate programs, including a similar legal battle over “Choose Life” plates concerning the issue of abortion. Today’s decision will give states the power to control what messages it will or will not permit.
Texas is not the only state asked to issue license plates adorned with Confederate battle flags by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Georgia has actually had one available since 2003. According to TIME, there are eight other states that offer Sons of Confederate license plates that display the flag: Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland (which actually was not in the Confederacy), Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Two states other than Texas rejected the flag design: Florida and Kentucky.
The Supreme Court ruled against viewing license plates featuring Confederate flags as protected free speech. While people may want to honor ancestors who fought in the war between the states, it is time for people to be embarrassed by what the Confederacy represents to many – a reminder of slavery – particularly with the continued examples of racial strife in recent years and yesterday.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Christian Science Monitor: Supreme Court upholds rejection of Confederate flag license plate
TIME: Supreme Court Rules Texas Can Reject Confederate Flag License Plates
USA Today: Keep license plates message-free: Our view
TIME: Designer of Georgia’s Confederate License Plate Doesn’t Understand Why People Are Upset