License Plates

Amy Tishler, Reporter

The state issued Texas Confederate license plate
The state issued Texas Confederate license plate.

A right of passage in high school is getting a driver’s license, and, for some, it means getting a first car. You may have noticed that some students have specialty license plates. Specialty plates bear the emblems of colleges, military personnel, charitable groups and other organizations. They can be purchased for approximately $15.00.

On March 23, 2015, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the state of Texas can refuse to issue license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag. The group requesting the plates is the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). They claim that the “Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence and Southern heritage.” (NYT) However, most people view the flag as a symbol of slavery, racism and hate.

Of course, the First Amendment states that free speech should not be prohibited. One issue in this case is:  Whose speech is on a specialty license plate? Is it the speech of the person whose car sports the plate? Or is it the speech of the government that issues and makes the plate? A second issue is, if it is the government’s speech, do they have the right to pick and choose which viewpoints to put on specialty plates? Or, must they treat all viewpoints equally?

To begin with, I believe that the speaker is the state because they are issuing and producing the specialty license plates. Also, the plates bear the name of the state. This means the government has the right to choose what they want to say or not say. I believe that individuals should have the right to display Confederate flag on their cars, as despicable as this symbol may be. However, I don’t think they have the right to compel the government to print this symbol on license plates for them. If an individual wants to display a Confederate flag or other racist or prejudiced message on his or her car, he or she can purchase bumper stickers from private companies that are willing to print such messages.

Second, while I am all for free speech for individuals, I believe that the government not only has the right but also the responsibility to censor its speech more carefully. Offensive individual speech and offensive government speech are two very different things. For example, if my neighbor hung a Nazi flag with a swastika on his front porch, I would be upset and disgusted, and I may inadvertently (oops!) forget to put his name on the invitation list for the neighborhood barbecue. However, if the White House hung a Nazi flag on its front porch, I would be fearful, I would distrust the government, and I would make sure my passport was up-to-date. It is one thing to feel hated or menaced by a neighbor, but another thing entirely to feel threatened by one’s own government.

If Confederate flags are printed on state-issued license plates, this implies that the government backs the racist ideology that this flag represents. It is not only offensive, but also intimidating to a large segment of the American population, just as the Nazi flag feels hostile to me. When the government speaks to its citizens, it has a responsibility not to convey messages that could be perceived as threatening by part of the population.

Unfortunately, in a similar lawsuit against Maryland in the 1990’s, the courts ruled in favor of the SCV. In the current Texas case, the Fifth Circuit Court also ruled in favor of the SCV. It now remains up to the Supreme Court to decide whether or not Texas can turn down the SCV’s requests to make the inflammatory plates. The Supreme Court is expected to make its decision by early June.