Texas' Confederate Flag License Plate Issue Reaches The Supreme Court For Allegedly Violating Freedom Of Speech

Is it a violation of First Amendment rights if Texas refuses to issue a Confederate flag license plate? This is the question that the Supreme Court will be taking up on Monday to determine whether Texas acted within its limits or if it violated citizens’ First Amendment rights when the state refused to issue license plates to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) that incorporated the Confederate battle flag.

The debate was sparked last July when a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Texas had violated the First Amendment in its refusal to issue Confederate flag license plates. The reason? Well, according to Judge Edward Prado in July’s hearing, the state isn’t considering that the Confederate flag carries multiple meanings.

ThinkProgress reports that Prado said the flag can also be seen as “a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage,” rather than the view that it is “an inflammatory symbol of hate and oppression.” By only considering the one interpretation of the flag, the court ruled that Texas was engaging in viewpoint discrimination, which is the Constitution does not allow.

But Texas contends that license plates, since they are state-issued, do not equate to private speech and rather fall into the category of the state’s speech. Moreover, the state points out that drivers can still emblazon personal opinions on their vehicles in the form of bumper stickers, window decals, or even a paint job. USA Today reports that Texas is backed by 11 other states.

This particular case opens up much bigger questions about freedom of speech, and whether a state must represent both sides of the coin in contentious issues. Every state in the U.S. offers specialty license plates, and the particular SCV license plate that’s currently in question is currently offered in nine other states. The SCV’s brief points out that this is the first time that Texas has ever denied a specialty plate application. Moreover, they point out that the state has put its stamp of approval on other potentially controversial plates that have political messages on them like “Choose Life,” “Insure Texas Kids,” and the “Texas State Rifle Association,” ThinkProgress reports.

The group would not be putting the license plates on their vehicles with any racist intentions. The SVC’s public information officer, Marshall Davis, told USA Today:

When I put this plate on my car, it will be to honor my soldier-ancestors. We deplore racist groups. We deplore the fact that our flag was misused, that the Klan waved that flag.

But as much as the SVC may deplore those facts, the Confederate flag’s history still remains, and the flag is often seen by many as having a distinct, racist meaning. So, if license plates turn out to not be personal expressions but government property, then it could be argued that though the government cannot regulate others’ freedom of speech, it still has the right to its own voice, and it thus could screen out the Confederate flag because of its negative implications.

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However, allowing the government to pick and choose what speech it supports also opens up the door for further government regulation. Even if a license plate ends up being deemed government property, the vehicle that the license plate is on is the property of a citizen.

Reuters reports that a decision is expected by the end of June. As far as which way the Supreme Court might rule, it’s hard to say. While the Supreme Court is historically a strident defender of the right to the freedom of speech, the Court also has ruled governments have a say when it involves their property.

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