Around the Web

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Specialty License Plate Case Decided by the Supreme Court on Government Speech Grounds

The Supreme Court today decided Walker v. Sons of Confederate Victims, which dealt with a state’s capacity to deny a specialty license plate to a group that wanted to feature a Confederate flag and the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans.” In an opinion by Justice Breyer (and joined by Justice Thomas), the Court holds 5-4 that speech on license plates is “government speech,” and therefore that the First Amendment does not stop the state of Texas from choosing what sort of message it will endorse. It would be one thing, said the Court, if the state were demanding that individuals “convey the government’s speech”–in essence acting as the government’s mouthpiece. But “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 its duties on their behalf.” The Court relied extensively on Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, another government speech case concerning a municipality’s rejection of a religious organization’s proposed monument in a public park that contained a Ten Commandments monument as well as several others. In Summum, the Court held that the municipality had not made the park available for private speech; all of the displays were government speech. The majority opinion here held that such was the case with the speciality license plates as well (oddly enough, since Texas had accepted applications from other organizations for specialty plates). Justice Alito dissented on the ground that Texas in fact does authorize specialty plates with distinctive messages that are obviously not government-endorsed speech (do see the Appendix beginning at page 18 of his opinion).

Who Speaks on Your License Plate?

The Supreme Court recently granted cert in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. The issues presented in that case are whether specialty license plates are a form of government speech, and whether Texas engaged in viewpoint discrimination when it rejected the SCV’s plate design featuring the Confederate battle flag. In a 2011 article in the Tulane Law Review, I wrote about license plate speech more extensively from a perspective slightly different than that presented in the Walker v. SCV case. My focus was on the question of Establishment Clause responsibility for religious messages on license plates. But the issues raised overlap significantly.

Imagine a state decides to display religious symbols or text on a license plate. South Carolina, for instance, created a specialty plate featuring a stained glass window with a superimposed cross and the words “I Believe.” Efforts to create a plate with a similar design failed in Florida. A federal court ultimately permanently enjoined South Carolina from issuing the plates.

Does a state’s specialty license plate program create a public forum for speech? If religious messages are displayed on the license plates, is the message purely private religious speech, or is it attributable to the state for Establishment Clause purposes?

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