The US Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans [SCOTUSblog materials] that state governments can restrict the kinds of messages printed on specialty licence plates. The Sons of Confederate Veterans [advocacy website] had argued that the Texas government’s refusal to issue specialty licence plates including an image of the confederate flag violated First Amendment [LII backgrounder] free speech protections. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the argument, saying that because they are issued by the state, specialty license plates constitute government speech [LII backgrounder] and are not held to the same level of scrutiny as other forms of speech:
Indeed, a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message. If not, the individual could simply display the message in question in larger letters on a bumper sticker right next to the plate. But the individual prefers a license plate design to the purely private speech expressed through bumper stickers. That may well be because Texas’s license plate designs convey government agreement with the message displayed.
The decision reversed an earlier ruling [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website].
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. The court granted certiorari in the case last December and heard oral arguments [JURIST reports] in March.