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The Supreme Court Says Texans Aren’t Entitled to Confederate Flag License Plates

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said Texas was free to determine what can and cannot be displayed on license plates because they are state property.
Image via Flickr

Texas can legally refuse to issue Confederate flag-bearing license plates, according to a Supreme Court ruling today that decided the state's rejection of a Confederate flag plate submission did not violate free speech.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said Texas was free to determine what can and cannot be displayed on license plates because they are state property and not owned by the individual.

The case stems from efforts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nationwide group made up of male descendants of Confederate soldiers, to get its logo and a Confederate battle flag on a license plate. The state rejected the request on the grounds that the plate could be considered offensive by Texans. The group subsequently filed a lawsuit against Texas claiming the decision violated the First Amendment.


Texas argued that, unlike a bumper sticker someone buys and puts on their personal vehicle, the personalized plates are government property. Siding with Texas, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer highlighted an earlier Supreme Court ruling that bars states from compelling drivers to use license plates displaying slogans they don't agree with.

Related: California Might Ban Sale and Display of Confederate Flag

"And just as Texas cannot require SCV (the Sons of Confederate Veterans) to convey 'the state's ideological message,'" Breyer wrote in his opinion, "SCV cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates."

Breyer was joined in his opinion by the three other liberal justices on the court — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan — along with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.

Conservative Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia dissented along with Chief Justice John Roberts, with Alito saying the ruling "threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing."

During the initial hearings for the case in March, Roberts noted that Texas had put itself in an awkward position by developing a large market for specialty plates.

"If you don't want to have the al Qaeda license plate," he said, "don't get into the business of allowing people to buy… the space to put on whatever they want to say."

The ruling gives the state the ability to bar messages on license plates, which are popular across the country, particularly in Texas where there are 450 specialty plates ranging from "Choose Life" to Boy Scouts. Personalized license plates are also a lucrative business in the state, where as many as 877,000 vehicles carry them. These specialty plates earned the state some $17.6 million last year alone.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Image via Flickr