by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law
I do not like the idea of confederate flags on license plates issued by the State of Texas, but I found the Court’s reasoning very troubling in allowing the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to prohibit this. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Court in a 5-4 decision, held that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not violate the First Amendment in refusing to issue a license plate with the confederate battle flag.
Texas, like all states, requires license plates on cars. In Texas, people can have either the general type of plates issued by the state or they may have specialty plates. One type of specialty plates are those where a non-profit organization asks the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board to approve a design and then issue plates with it. The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a specialty license plate design featuring a confederate battle flag, but the Board rejected the proposal.
The Supreme Court held that the Board did not violate the First Amendment because license plates are government speech and when the government is the speaker it cannot violate the speech clause of the First Amendment. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority said, “When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.” The Court explained, “Were the Free Speech Clause interpreted otherwise, government would not work.” The government must be able to express messages such as to encourage recycling or energy conservation or vaccination of children.
The Court said that the license plate is government speech and therefore the choice of the Board to not allow the confederate flag does not violate the First Amendment. The Court stressed that license plates have long communicated messages from the state and that license plate designs are perceived by the public as coming from the state. The Court said that Texas license plates are essentially government IDs. The Court stressed that Texas retains control over the content of its license plates. The Court said that Texas was not creating a forum for private speech, where the First Amendment would apply, but it was Texas speaking itself.
It is easy to like the result in this case because confederate battle flags convey a message of racism that is inherently hurtful and divisive. Indeed, it may be for exactly this reason that Justice Clarence Thomas was the fifth vote in the majority – joining Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan – in an alignment that is rare on the Court. In Virginia v. Black (2003), Justice Thomas was the sole dissenter arguing that the government should be able to ban cross burning because of its vile history and hateful message.