Opinions & Commentaries

New Hampshire statutes require that noncommercial motor vehicles bear license plates embossed with the state motto, "Live Free or Die," and make it a misdemeanor to obscure the motto. Appellees, Maynard and his wife, who are followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith, view the motto as repugnant to their moral, religious, and political beliefs, and accordingly they covered up the motto on the license plates of their jointly owned family automobiles. Appellee Maynard was subsequently found guilty in state court of violating the misdemeanor statute on three separate charges and upon refusing to pay the fines imposed was sentenced to, and served, 15 days in jail.

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Congress created the nonprofit Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974 to distribute federal funds to local legal-aid organizations as the primary means of providing basic legal services for the indigent. Restrictions on the use of funds precluded litigation concerning: abortion, political activity, criminal proceedings, school desegregation, and military desertion. In 1996, restrictions were extended to encompass challenges to welfare laws, although representation of individuals in suits-for-benefits were permitted. The 1996 Act also forbid LSC recipients from using non-LSC funds for those purposes, although such activity by an affiliate not under the control of the recipient was allowed. In 1997, legal-aid lawyers challenged the law as a violation of the First Amendment freedoms of speech and association and sought a preliminary injunction against its enforcement. The judge for the federal District Court in New York denied the injunction. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, with the exception of the suit-for-benefits provision. The 2nd Circuit ruled that the restriction on challenging the constitutionality of existing welfare laws constituted impermissible viewpoint discrimination. The government has greater leeway to selectively fund speech when the government is the speaker. Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991). The First Amendment generally prohibits discrimination against speech based on viewpoint. Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995).

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For the third time in eight years, we consider whether a federal program that finances generic advertising to promote an agricultural product violates the First Amendment. In these cases, unlike the previous two, the dispositive question is whether the generic advertising at issue is the Government's own speech and therefore is exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.

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Texas offers automobile owners a choice between general-issue and specialty license plates. Those who want the State to issue a particular specialty plate may propose a plate design, comprising a slogan, a graphic, or both. If the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board approves the design, the State will make it available for display on vehicles registered in Texas. Here, the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and its officers (collectively SCV) filed suit against the Chairman and members of the Board (collectively Board), arguing that the Board’s rejection of SCV’s proposal for a specialty plate design featuring a Confederate battle flag violated the Free Speech Clause. The District Court entered judgment for the Board, but the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Texas’s specialty license plate designs are private speech and that the Board engaged in constitutionally forbidden viewpoint discrimination when it refused to approve SCV’s design.

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