Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a state’s denial of a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate flag violates the First Amendment.

Action

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the denial did not violate the First Amendment, reversing the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Facts/Syllabus

The Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) applied to sponsor a specialty license plate featuring a Confederate battle flag from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board. The Board denied the plate because, at least in part, “public comments ha[d] shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive, and because such comments are reasonable.” The SCV brought suit, alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Importance of Case

The Court held that SCV’s First Amendment rights were not violated because the specialty license plates were a form of government speech. Based on its findings in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the Court observed: “When government speaks, it is not barred by the Free Speech Clause from determining the content of what it says.” The Court concluded the license plates were government speech because plates had long conveyed messages from the State government; are often believed by the public to convey government messages; and that Texas has direct control over the final approval of every message to be displayed on a license plate. Given the Court’s finding that the specialty license plates were government speech, the government’s choice of the content of the speech is not unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination because such speech is the product of our democratic processes that “reflect [the public’s] electoral mandate.”

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