WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas did not violate the First Amendment when it refused to allow specialty license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag. Such plates, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, are the government’s speech and are thus immune from First Amendment attacks.
The vote was 5-4. The court’s other three liberal members joined Breyer’s majority opinion, as did Justice Clarence Thomas.
In dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that the majority opinion “establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing.”
The majority relied on the court’s 2009 decision in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, which said a donated Ten Commandments monument in a park was the government’s speech. When the government speaks, the court said, it is free to say what it likes.
Nine states have let drivers choose specialty license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag and honoring the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which says it seeks to celebrate Southern heritage. But Texas refused to allow the group’s plates, saying the flag was offensive.
Texas has hundreds of specialty plates. Many are for college alumni, sports fans, and service organizations, but others send such messages as “Choose Life,” “God Bless Texas,” and “Fight Terrorism.”
The state rarely rejects a proposed design. But the eight members of the board of its Motor Vehicles Department voted unanimously in 2011 to reject the license plate.
“A significant portion of the public,” the board said, “associates the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.”
A federal appeals court said Texas had discriminated against the group’s view that “the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage.”