SCOTUS Pumps the Brakes On Confederate License Plate

The Court said Texas did not have to let the Sons of Confederate Veterans design a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate flag.

A guard stands on the steps of the Supreme Court Building, August 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) (National Journal)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas joined with the Supreme Court's liberals Thursday to rule that states don't have to allow the Confederate flag on speciality license plates.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court said it was OK for Texas officials to reject a license-plate design that featured the Confederate flag. The messages on license plates—even those that promote private organizations—are messages that come from state governments, the Court said, and the states don't have to endorse the Confederate flag if they don't want to.

Texas makes it pretty easy for various advocacy groups to obtain a specialty license-plate design—plates that, for example, promote the citrus industry or warn against drunk driving. Drivers can choose among those designs when they get new plates, or they can stick with the state-designed option.

But when the Sons of Confederate Veterans submitted their specialty plate, the state balked. Because "a significant portion of the public associate the confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate," the state's license-plate board said, it wouldn't print those plates.

So the question became: Whose First Amendment rights were at stake? Was the Confederate license plate the free speech of the Sons of Confederate Veterans? They designed it, after all, and their name would have been on it. Or was it the speech of the state of Texas, which would have manufactured and issued the license plates?

The license plate would have been the government's speech, and "when government speaks, it is not barred ... from determining the content of what it says," Justice Stephen Breyer said in the Court's ruling.