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Thursday, June 18, 2015

SCOTUS Decides the Confederate Plates Case (5-4)

The US Supreme Court today held that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not violate the First Amendment when it rejected a proposed license plate featuring the confederate battle flag. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Breyer and  joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, reached this conclusion by deploying the relatively newly minted government speech doctrine to allow Texas to pick and choose what messages its drivers can display on their specialty license plates based on whether others might find those messages offensive. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Kennedy dissented. 

Like many other states, Texas has a specialty license plate program through which it raises funds by allowing a variety of groups to create specialty plates. Justice Breyer's majority opinion notes, for example, that Texas has approved plates "featuring the words 'The Gator Nation,' together with the Florida Gators logo." [As a UF professor, I appreciate the SCOTUS shout-out!] Justice Breyer also notes that Texas has approved plates with slogans offered by private companies, such as "Get it Sold with RE/MAX." Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer nonetheless concludes that these messages are government speech, branded with the "imprimatur" of Texas.

The case began in 2009, when the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) first submitted to Texas a plate with their name, their organizational logo, and the Confederate battle flag. After public comment and an open meeting to consider the plate, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board rejected the plate on the grounds that "many members of the general public find the design offensive." The Board further deemed such comments by  the public to be "reasonable." (emphasis mine) [Cf. Snyder v. Phelps!] The SCV sought an injunction to force the Board to approve the plate on the ground that the denial violated the First Amendment. A federal district court entered judgment for the Board, but a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the Board's viewpoint discrimination against the SCV plate was unconstitutional. 

Today, the Supreme Court held that Texas is the speaker when it chooses the contents of specialty license plates. In other words, the contents of the specialty plates are government speech, and Texas is therefore free to engage in viewpoint discrimination in choosing which plates to approve, subject to the constraints of the "democratic electoral process." The majority posited that the "government would not work" were it not free to convey its messages in the way it sees fit: "as a general matter, when the government speaks it is entitled to promote a program, to espouse a policy, or to take a position. In doing so, it represents its citizens and it carries out duties on their behalf." 

A reasonable observer could be forgiven for assuming that a Texas plate that favors The Gator Nation represents the views of the driver of the automobile rather than the views of the State of Texas. But the Court concluded that the plate messages are government speech based on the following. First, license plates historically have been used to convey state messages. "Second, Texas license plate designs 'are often closely identified in the public mind with the [State]." [The majority's process of discerning the "public mind' is a little unclear.] Third, Texas controls messages on its license plates by requiring Board approval of every plate design, a process which grants "final approval authority [that] allows Texas to choose how to present itself and its constituency." 

The Court further concluded that license plates do not constitute forums for the speech of private individuals (such as the drivers who choose the plates).  The Court emphasized that license plates, unlike public parks, are not traditional public forums [but then again neither are teacher mailboxes, as in Perry Education Ass'n]. More controversially, the Court asserted that the license plates are not designated public forums because the policies and practices of the state of Texas manifest its intent to maintain control of them. The opinion placed great weight on the fact that Texas has "final authority" to approve content, and it also emphasized the traditional role of license plates as "primarily . . . a form of government ID [that] bear[s] the State's name." In doing so, the opinion seems to ignore the conversion of the "traditional" license plate system into a revenue-raising scheme for the state. 

Finally, the majority rejected the notion that the plates are a non-public forum that can be used by private speakers, reasoning that the plates are predominantly used by Texas for its own "expressive conduct." As the opinion states, "we reach this conclusion based on the historical context, observers' reasonable interpretation of the messages conveyed by Texas specialty plates, and the effective control that the State exerts over the design selection process." 

 This 5-4 decision highlights a flaw in First Amendment doctrine that I've previously discussed in an article on public forum doctrine and government speech in social media. That flaw is that current doctrine "does not contemplate the possibility that [a forum for speech] might involve both government speech and a public forum." Supreme Court precedent left the majority with a Boolean choice: either the plates were a public forum or they were government speech. If the plates were a public forum, Texas's rejection of  any imaginable  plates on the grounds of offensiveness would constitute content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. The result would be that Texas, and perhaps most states, would eliminate specialty license plate programs even if it meant giving up the extra revenues they bring. [Not that this result would be so terrible.] On the other hand, if the plates were deemed government speech, Texas could maintain the program while blocking the most objectionable types of plates. Reality, however, is more complicated than current free speech doctrine. The reality is that Texas specialty plates contain both government speech and private speech on one small square of metal. This case just points out the absurdity of having to choose inflexible doctrinal categories to get to a desired outcome. 

Justice Alito's dissent rightly observed that the case sets a dangerous precedent, allowing the government to regulate any offensive speech on government property simply by retaining final approval authority over that speech. Justice Alito refocused the historical analysis of licenses plates on the point AFTER the development of specialty plate programs, concluding that "history here does not suggest that the messages at issue are government speech." He also examined how the Texas license plate approval process actually worked: Texas accepts all private messages submitted "except those, like the SCV plate, that would offend some who viewed them." The mere fact that Texas has given its "blessing" to the private speech on most plates does not make those plates government speech. Instead, "Texas, in effect, sells [license plate] space to those who wish to use it to express a personal message," and by doing so, creates a limited public forum. Texas' decision to reject the SCV plate, or indeed  to reject any plate on grounds of offensiveness, was therefore unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. 

 

 

 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on June 18, 2015 at 04:51 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Lyrissa Lidsky | Permalink

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