The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today that Texas is permitted to broadly control the messages on specialty license plates is disappointing, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Texas has a license plate program that allows private organizations to design specialty plates, subject to state approval. State officials refused to issue members of the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans a plate depicting the Confederate flag on the ground that “many members of the general public find [it] offensive.”
The high court ruled 5-4 to uphold this policy, concluding that the speech on specialty license plates is government speech rather than private speech. Americans United says the decision is misguided because the messages on specialty license plates reflect the views of private speakers and should not be subjected to censorship by the state.
“Speech that some people deem ‘offensive’ is still protected speech,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Today’s ruling could make it harder for members of some groups, such as unpopular religions and atheists, to use license plates to express messages.”
On the other hand, the court limited its decision to specialty license plates, which were at issue in this case. The government’s ability to censor the content of vanity license plates, in which the car owner “may request a particular alphanumeric pattern for use as a plate number,” was not considered in this case, as Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the majority opinion.
Americans United is currently involved in a challenge to the latter situation and will continue to pursue that case. In New Jersey, Americans United is representing a woman whose vanity plate reading, “8THEIST” was rejected by officials at the Motor Vehicle Commission – even though even though the state allows plates bearing religious messages, such as “BAPTIST.”
Americans United filed a brief in the case, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, urging the high court to rule that specialty license plates are private speech, not government-sponsored speech. The brief was prepared by Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and Americans United Legal Director, Ayesha N. Khan.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.