Supreme Court to decide on 'Confederate' license plates

Can states say no when the Sons of Confederate Vets ask for a special license plate?

The Supreme Court said Friday it will decide whether states that issue specialty license plates must include potentially controversial ones with Confederate battle flags or abortion-related messages. 

At issue is whether the 1st Amendment's protection for the freedom of speech put limits on the range and type of messages displayed on these state-issued plates. Judges have been divided over whether these license plates are seen as carrying the state's message or instead expressing the private views of the motorist.

Most states offer specialty plates to motorists, and officials have adopted different approaches toward controversial topics such as abortion or the Confederacy. Some states steer clear of controversy entirely. Others, such as North Carolina, authorized "Choose Life" plates, but refused requests for a plate with a "pro-choice" message.

In recent months, two U.S. appeals court in the South have ruled that license plates express the "private speech" of a motorist, and therefore, cannot be strictly regulated by the states.

Texas was told it must issue a license plate honoring the "Sons of Confederate Veterans," even though state officials feared such an official plate would be seen by many as hateful and demeaning.

And North Carolina was told that if it issued "Choose Life" plates, it must also offer a contrary message such as "Respect Choice."

The Supreme Court said it had agreed to hear an appeal from Texas state lawyers in the case of Walker vs. Texas Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans. An official license plate is "government speech," the state's lawyers argued, and thereby shielded from free-speech attacks.

The state should not be "forced to convey a license-plate holder's message by etching onto a plate marked with the state's name," they said. If motorists can claim such a free-speech right, the state could find itself forced to issue plates for the Ku Klux Klan or other hate groups, they added.

The court took no action on a similar pending appeal from North Carolina, but it will likely be decided in the spring when the court rules in the Texas case.

The North Carolina legislature in 2011 voted to authorize "Choose Life" license plates, and it rejected a request for a "Respect Choice" plate. The American Civil Liberties Union sued and won before the 4th Circuit Court, which said this decision amounted to state discrimination against free speech.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans took the same view in the Texas case. Its judges ruled Texas engaged in unconstitutional "viewpoint discrimination" when it refused to issue a specialty plate for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The case will be set for argument in late March.

On Twitter: @DavidGSavage

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