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Walker v. Tex. Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans

Justia Summary

Texas automobile owners can choose between general-issue and specialty license plates. People can propose a specialty plate design, with a slogan, a graphic, or both. If the Department of Motor Vehicles Board approves the design, the state makes it available. The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) claimed that rejection of SCV’s proposal for a specialty plate design featuring a Confederate flag violated the Free Speech Clause. The Fifth Circuit held that Texas’s specialty license plate designs were private speech and that the Board engaged in constitutionally forbidden viewpoint discrimination. The Supreme Court reversed. Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech. When government speaks, it is not barred from determining the content of what it says; it is generally entitled to promote a program, espouse a policy, or take a position. States have long used license plates to convey government speech, e.g., slogans urging action and touting local industries and license plate designs are often closely identified in the public mind with the state. Plates serve the governmental purposes of vehicle registration and identification and are, essentially, government IDs. Texas maintains direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates. Forum analysis, which applies to government restrictions on purely private speech occurring on government property, is not appropriate when the state is speaking on its own behalf. That private parties take part in the design and pay for specialty plates does not transform the government’s role into that of a mere forum provider. The Court acknowledged that the First Amendment stringently limits state authority to compel a private party to express a view with which the private party disagrees. Just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey the state’s ideological message, SCV cannot dictate design.

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